Does God Read Every Thought?
On Monday, we looked at how our heart’s desires precede — they come before — what overflows in our lives. Even our mouth simply voices what our hearts have already conceived. It’s a pretty haunting truth that opens up a lot of implications to carefully consider. But that’s a non-issue with God. Because before we do or speak anything, he already knows our thoughts. Or, that’s what one listener wants to find out, at least. Today’s question is brief, and it comes from a listener named Joan: “Pastor John, can God read our thoughts?”
The short answer is yes, but what’s really important, as I have thought about this, are the implications of that answer, and they are many and really significant. I doubt that Joan, in sending us this question, wanted me to give a one-word answer and move on to the next question. She probably would like to know, Why do you say that? What’s the basis of saying that he knows our thoughts? And what difference would it make in our lives if he does? So that’s what I want to do. Let’s do that: first the foundation, and then maybe half a dozen or so amazing (I think) implications of that truth.
Every Thought Laid Bare
Psalm 139:2, 4, 23: “You know [the psalmist is talking to God] when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. . . . Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. . . . Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts.” Or Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart” — that’s the phrase: “the meditation of my heart” — “be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
And then there are numerous texts about God testing and seeing the heart and the mind, like Psalm 7:9: “Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous — you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God!” Or Psalm 26:2: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.” Or Jeremiah 17:10: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind.” Or Jeremiah 20:12: “O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind . . .”
Then there’s the same thing in the New Testament. It speaks of God searching the heart. Revelation 2:23: “All the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart.” Then the idea of God’s discerning the intentions of the heart is picked up in Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and the intentions of the heart.”
In the final judgment, God will take into account the secrets of the heart, Paul says in Romans 2:16: “. . . on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” Repeatedly, we read that God knows the heart and its thoughts. First Corinthians 3:20: “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” He knows the hearts of all men. Acts 1:24–25: “The apostles prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to [be Judas’s replacement].’” God is the great heart-knower, the great mind-knower.
“God is the great heart-knower, the great mind-knower.”
Jesus, in his ministry, had a huge quarrel with the Pharisees and the scribes precisely because they pretended to be something on the outside that they were not on the inside. And Jesus knew that; he knew what was inside of them. Matthew 23:25–26: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Or the way John summed it up in John 2:25: “[Jesus] needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
Six Vast Implications
So, from numerous angles, the Bible teaches that God knows our thoughts. He knows our feelings. He knows our attitudes, our inclinations and decisions before they show themselves in outward action. Now for the really interesting part. Some of us may think, “Well, this is just so obvious. Good grief, he’s God. Yes, of course.” And then we just move on to the next question or issue instead of pondering the implications of what many of us just assume is a given because that’s what God does; he knows all things. But let me spell out a few of the implications so that this can rest on us with some sense of glory and significance.
1. God sanctifies us from the inside out.
God’s great work of sanctification — that is, making us holy — works mainly from the inside out. That’s the way God does it. It’s the work of the Spirit in our hearts. Paul prays, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
“The Great Physician does not do his heart surgery blindfolded; he sees what he’s working on.”
Now, if he’s going to change John Piper’s attitudes and inclinations so that they conform more closely to Christ, he needs to see what needs to be changed. He must know my heart if he’s going to do work on my heart. The Great Physician does not do his heart surgery blindfolded; he sees what he’s working on. He sees my pride, my greed, my fear, my lust, my anger, and all the inclinations and potential decisions that are welling up from them. He does his sanctifying surgery from the inside out. He would be a bad surgeon if he could not see the cancer he was working on.
2. God can set a guard over our mouths.
There’s another way that God limits the evil of our lives besides that internal transforming surgery. The psalmist prays in Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” Besides working on the heart directly to sanctify us, God also can put a guard at our lips, so that an internal thought or emotion does not get expressed and hurt more people. But God could not do this if he could not see the thought that was about to come out of my mouth and stop it. “I see that coming. I’m not going to let him say that. He’s my child.”
He could have changed that deep down in my heart, but for reasons of his own, he sanctifies me in various ways, and one of the ways is this: “I see that thought coming. No way. I’m going to save him a lot of trouble at this elder meeting or in this sermon to keep that from coming out of his mouth.”
3. God discerns good and evil motives.
If God could not see hidden motives, he could not distinguish good and evil. Many outwardly good acts are hypocrisy because there is so much evil intent on the inside. God would be no better off than we are in knowing people if he could not see the heart. He would be liable to call a Pharisee godly, when in fact the Pharisee is a whitewashed tomb. All behavior gets its true virtue from its motive. God could not know virtue. He couldn’t know right from wrong, good from bad, if he could not know the heart.
4. God receives silent worship.
God could not receive worship from the paralyzed — the totally paralyzed — if he could not see their hearts. I’m thinking of a person who has lost all outward capacities to communicate, but whose mind and heart are conscious and alert and full of faith and worship. If God does not know the thoughts, he could not receive the worship of such a saint, a paralyzed saint. But God will not be denied such worship. He sees the heart and rejoices over that amazing faith.
5. God hears silent prayer.
The same is true of prayer. If God cannot see thoughts and feelings of the mind and heart, then for those who cannot make a sound with their lips for whatever reason — chosen or unchosen — he wouldn’t be able to hear their prayers. When David prayed, “Let the . . . meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord” (Psalm 19:14), he was saying, “Let my prayers be acceptable.” The same thing would be true. “Let the prayers of my heart be acceptable, O Lord.”
6. God’s plans always stand.
This may be the most amazing. God could not rule the world if he did not know the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Picture it. If eight billion people surprised God every minute of every day by turning their unknown thoughts suddenly into action, and God says, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming,” taking God off guard because he could not see the thought or the emotion that was ready to come out of their mouths — because it was only in their heart, and he can’t know their heart — then God could not govern the world with any semblance of certainty. He would be endlessly — billions of times every day — playing catch-up ball, rearranging his plans.
If God were ignorant of what was about to happen from the mouths and hands and feet of eight billion people, he could not know what would be happening everywhere all the time, all over the world. But Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” God knows the plans of the mind, and in his sovereign wisdom, he sees to it that all goes according to his perfectly wise plan.
So, yes, Joan, God reads and knows our thoughts, and the implications are vast.