The Life of the Mind and the Love of God

Desiring God 2010 National Conference

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God

This message appears as a chapter in Thinking. Loving. Doing.: A Call to Glorify God with Heart and Mind.

There are negative aims that we have had for this conference and positive ones — things we want to prevent and things we want to promote. The main positive aim is that you will embrace serious thinking as a way of loving God and people — that through the awakening and sharpening of your thinking, you will love God and love people more deeply and more fully and more unshakably. We will turn to that aim in a few minutes. But let me mention first some of the negative aims of the conference. These are things that we would like to prevent.

Eight Things We Hope the Conference Will Help Prevent

1. We hope that you will not be naïve about the depravity of the human mind — your mind.

In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul says the mind is “hardened” (epōrōthē). In 1 Timothy 6:5, he calls the mind “depraved” (diephtharmenōn). In Ephesians 4:18, he says men are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God.” In Romans 1:21, he says that thinking has become “futile” (emaraiōthēsan) and “foolish” (asunetos), because men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). He warns against being taken “captive by philosophy” (Colossians 2:8). And he says in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom,” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

And so our first negative aim is that you would not be naïve about what we are up against. If there is a holy place for thinking in the Christian life, something dramatic has to happen to overcome these kinds of obstacles. We must be born again and continually renewed by the Holy Spirit.

2. We hope that your mind will not be complicit in spiritual adultery.

In Matthew 16:1–4, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus to test him and asked him to show them a sign from heaven. And in the way he answered them, he showed that their thinking was complicit in spiritual adultery. He said,

When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.

When it came to the weather, they were using their minds with Aristotelian precision:

Premise one: Red skies at night means fair weather tomorrow.
Premise two: The sky is red tonight.
Conclusion: Tomorrow it will be fair.

Exactly. Good thinking. Good use of the mind. “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky.”

But then Jesus says, “But you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” You cannot see me for who I am. You cannot see that these are the Last Days. The Messiah is here. The kingdom of God is breaking in. And your minds are incapable of grasping this. You “cannot interpret the signs.” Good mind for the weather. Blind mind for the Bridegroom.

Israel is the wife of God. He has come to her in Jesus. Surely she knows her husband! Surely her mental faculties will work as well to know her beloved as to know the weather? Surely she will not stand before her husband and say: “Prove it. Give me a sign that you are my beloved.” Surely her weather-knowing mind will know her husband.

No. And why not? Jesus gives the answer in verse 4: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” Adulterous? What does that mean? It means their Messiah, their husband, was not what they wanted. Their hearts preferred other lovers (see Luke 16:14; 18:9; Matthew 6:5). They were spiritual adulterers.

And what was the effect on their minds? Blindness. So beware of letting your heart become so enamored by other lovers that your mind cannot know your king when he comes. Beware of making your minds complicit in spiritual adultery.

3. We hope that you will not be cagey or slippery with your mind.

Jesus will not tolerate this in any relationship with himself. He will not deal with people who use their minds to be shifty with the truth (Matthew 21:23:27). The chief priests ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” He could see their devious hearts. So he said, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Instead of being forthright and clear and up front, they become cagey. They used their minds to become slippery. They say, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”

Jesus will not talk to people like that. He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” We hope that you will not be cagey or slippery with your mind, but that you will be like Paul when he said, “We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).

4. We hope that you will not be romantic about the benefits of ignorance.

There is an odd notion that, if we use our minds to grow in our knowledge of God, mystery will diminish and with it a sense of wonder and reverence. I call this notion odd for two reasons. One is that, no matter how many millions of ages I use my mind to know more and more of God’s majesty, his glories will never be in danger of being exhausted. What is not yet known of God by finite creatures will always be limitless. You honor this truth more by shameless growth in the knowledge of God.

And the second reason I find the notion odd that thinking about God and knowing more and more of God jeopardizes our worship of God, is that without knowing him we can’t worship in a way that honors him. God is not honored when people get excited about how little they know of him.

Ignorance of God has never been the ground of true worship. While we don’t know all, and never will know all, we know something, because God has chosen to reveal himself. And he is honored when our worship is based on what he has revealed, not on what he hasn’t.

So don’t be romantic about the benefits of ignorance. Be more enthralled by the God you know, than the God you don’t know.

5. We hope that you will not be children in your thinking but mature.

Paul said, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). There is a kind of thinking that Paul calls mature and a kind that children do. He wants us to grow up in our thinking, which is what I hope this conference leads to. I mention this goal mainly to make the next one stand out.

6. We hope that you will be children in your thinking.

I know this is not a negative goal, but it puts the previous one in such stark relief that it belongs here. And in a sense, it is a negative goal because it’s the flip side of saying: We hope you will not be “wise and understanding.” Jesus said in Luke 10:21, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” So we don’t want you to be “wise and understanding” but “children.”

“God is not honored when people get excited about how little they know of him.”

The wise and understanding are proud and self-sufficient in their knowledge. They use their minds not to know God and submit to God and love God, but to exalt themselves and seek the praise of men and escape God. But the “children” are those with a childlike mind, a humble mind, a trusting, God-dependent mind. They look to God with humble expectancy, and he reveals himself to them.

So we hope you will not be children in your thinking, and that you will be children in your thinking. And I say it like that because it is precisely by seeing such things in the Bible that makes it clear that God wants us to think! He wants us to ask: In what sense is it good to be like children, and in what sense is it not? And then to use our minds to purse the biblical answer.

7. We do not want you to view thinking as unnecessary in knowing God or as decisive in knowing God.

It is necessary, but it is not decisive. God’s sovereign illumination is decisive. The key text behind this entire conference, as I first conceived it, is 2 Timothy 2:7. Paul says to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” Think! It’s a command. Why think? “Because (key word ‘for’!) the Lord will give you understanding.” The ground of our thinking is God’s giving understanding. This has been one of the most influential texts in my thinking biblically about thinking.

We don’t want you to undervalue biblically the necessity of thinking. At least ten times in the book of Acts, Luke says that Paul’s strategy was to “reason” with people in his effort to convert them to Jesus and build them up (Acts 17:2, 4, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:25). The role of the mind in thinking seriously about God’s revelation was simply huge for Paul.

But it was not decisive in coming to faith or in knowing God. Necessary, but not decisive. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” So many people swerve off the road to one side of this verse or the other. Some stress “Think over what I say.” They emphasize the indispensable role of reason and thinking. And they often minimize the decisive supernatural role of God in making the mind able to see and embrace the truth. Others stress the second half of the verse: “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” They emphasize the futility of reason without God’s illumining work.

But Paul will not be divided that way. And this conference is a plea to you that you not force that division either. We hope you will embrace both human thinking and divine illumination. For Paul it was not either-or, but both-and. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”

And notice the little word “for.” This means that the promise of God to give us understanding is the ground of our thinking, not the substitute for it. Paul does not say, “God gives you understanding, so don’t waste your time thinking over what I say.” Nor does he say, “Think hard over what I say because it all depends on you, and God does not illumine the mind.”

No. He emphatically makes God’s gift of illumination the ground of our effort to understand. There is no reason to believe that a person who thinks without prayerful trust in God’s gift of understanding will get it. And there is no reason to believe that a person who waits for God’s gift of understanding without thinking about his word will get it either. Both-and. Not either-or.

8. The last negative goal for this conference that I will mention is that yours will not be a proud, loveless mind.

Here I underscore Francis Chan’s embodied exposition of 1 Corinthians 8:1–3. Paul says, “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.”

One thing is clear: Knowledge that is loveless is not true knowledge. It’s imaginary knowledge, no matter how factual it is: “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.” Knowing as we ought to know is a knowing for the sake of loving. Loving God and loving people.

So our main aim negatively is that you not leave this conference with a proud and loveless mind.

Which leads me now to the main positive aim of the conference, that you embrace serious thinking as a means of loving God and people.

What We Hope the Conference Will Awaken and Increase: Thinking for the Sake of Loving

The main focus here is the Great Commandment. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Your shall love the Lord your God with all your mind”? You recall the story. A Pharisee asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36–39).

So the greatest commandment in the Bible is to love God. And Jesus says to do this with our mind. What does it mean to love God “with our all your mind”? I’ll give you my answer and then try to show you where I got this from the context.

When Jesus says, “Love God will all your mind,” I take him to mean 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.

Not a Mere Decision

Notice two things about this understanding. One is that I am taking “loving God” to mean mainly treasuring God. The other is that thinking (the mind) is a means to that end. In other words, it’s an experience of cherishing, delighting, admiring, and valuing. It’s not a thought about God or a work for God. It’s the sort of thing Paul meant when he said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). It’s about treasuring worth. Love for God is an affair of the affections. Ideas and thoughts and thinking are crucial (as we will see) but they are not what love is. Thinking is for the sake of loving. It’s a means to loving. It’s not what love is. That’s my interpretation.

It’s not a mere decision any more than your treasuring the beauty of a sunset is a mere decision. You don’t decide to find beauty compelling. It happens to you. Loving God means that God is our supreme treasure and pleasure. We prefer above all else to know him and see him and be with him and be like him.

Loving God as Treasuring Him

Now let me try to unpack it and defend it. Why do I define loving God mainly as treasuring God? Why do I believe that love for God is most essentially an experience of the affections, not mere thought or mere behavior?

When Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), he emphatically did not say that keeping his commandments is what love is. He distinguished the two and made commandment-keeping the evidence of loving him, not the definition of loving him.

And when Jesus says the second commandment (keeping God’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves), he emphatically did not say that the second commandment was interchangeable with the first one. It is like it. It is not it. Loving God is not defined by loving neighbor. It is demonstrated by loving neighbor. “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). But they are not identical.

Actions Are Not the Essence of Worship

Or consider the way Jesus talks about the heart worshiping him. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me’” (Mark 7:6–7). In other words, external actions — even religious ones directed toward God — are not the essence of worship. They are not the essence of love. What happens in the heart is essential. The external behaviors will be pleasing to God when they flow from a heart that freely treasures God above all things.

Or consider what Jesus says about loving and hating God in Matthew 6:24. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” The opposite of loving God is “hating” and “despising.” These are strong emotional words. They imply that the positive counterpart is also a strong emotion. So loving God is a strong inward emotion, not a mere outward action.

Loving Is Treasuring

So I take loving God in the Great Commandment to mean most essentially treasuring God — valuing him, cherishing him, admiring him, desiring him. Therefore, loving him with all our mind means that our mind — our thinking — is not what does the loving, but what fuels the loving. Loving God with the mind means our mind does all it can to awaken and express our treasuring God above all things.

If we equate loving God with thinking rightly about God, we jeopardize the very reality of love. If you say that fire and fuel are the same, you may not order the wood. Then the fire goes out. The fire is not the wood. But for the sake of the fire, you exert yourself to provide the wood. And for the sake of love, you exert your mind and provide knowledge.

We cannot love God without knowing God; and the way we know God is by the Spirit-enabled use of our minds. So to “love God with all your mind” means engaging all your powers of thought to know God as fully as possible in order to treasure him for all he is worth.

Where Should We Focus?

And where should our mind focus in order to know God most fully and deeply? We could focus on nature because the heavens are telling the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). We could focus on the human soul for we are made in the image of God. We could focus on the history of Israel because God calls Israel “my glory” (Isaiah 46:13). We could focus on the life of Christ because he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). Or we could come to the event where more of God is revealed than any other event in history, the death of his Son. All the other revelations of God in Christ are like rays of sun breaking through the clouds. But the death of Christ for sinners was like a bolt of lightning.

If we want to spend our minds to the fullest in knowing God to the fullest so that we can love him to the fullest, this is where we will focus. And when our thinking begins to focus on this event, something strange happens. The light of God’s glory that we meet at the cross is so strong and so bright as to make all self-exalting thinking look foolish.

Thinking on the Cross

“God has made foolish the wisdom of the world,” Paul says, “For in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:20–21). The human wisdom that cannot know God — the human thinking that cannot fathom the cross — is self-exalting wisdom, man-centered wisdom, sin-denying wisdom. Of this wisdom Paul says,

  • “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:20).
  • “God will destroy the wisdom of the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:19).
  • “The foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
  • “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

But none of that means we shouldn’t use our minds to think about the cross. There is a right thinking about the cross. There is a true wisdom in the cross. Paul said, “Among the mature we do impart wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:6). The difference between the wisdom that the cross destroys and the wisdom that the cross awakens is the difference between self-exalting wisdom and Christ-exalting wisdom. True wisdom sees the glory of God in the cross. False wisdom sees the cross as foolishness because it threatens our pride.

There is no other object of knowledge in the universe that exposes proud, man-exalting thinking like the cross does. Only humble, Christ-exalting thinking can survive in the presence of the cross. The effect of the cross on our thinking is not cut off thinking about God, but to confound boasting in the presence of God. The cross does not nullify thinking it purifies thinking.

Our Prayer

So as you go on you way from this conference, our prayer is

  1. that you will not be naïve about the depravity of your mind;
  2. that you will not be mentally complicit in spiritual adultery;
  3. that you will not be cagey or slippery with your mind;
  4. that you will not have romantic notions about the benefits of an ignorant mind;
  5. that you will not be children in your thinking in the wrong way;
  6. but that you will be children in your thinking in the good way;
  7. that you will not view thinking as unnecessary in knowing God or as decisive in knowing God, but as necessary and not decisive;
  8. and that yours will not be a proud, loveless mind in relation to other people.

But I pray that you will love God with all your mind — that you will engage your thinking as fully as possible for the sake of knowing God as fully as possible, for the sake of treasuring God as fully as possible. That you will employ your mind to provide your heart with as much fuel for the fires of love as it can possibly deliver.

“Only humble, Christ-exalting thinking can survive in the presence of the cross.”

To that end may the cross of Christ, the deepest, highest, clearest revelation of God in history, be the focus of your thinking. There is no other place where you can see him more clearly or love him more dearly. Here is the place where your thinking will be most deeply purified, and the worth of God will be most fully magnified. Amen.

More Messages from Desiring God 2010 National Conference

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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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