How do we avoid over-thinking or under-thinking the Christian life? It’s a relevant question for a podcast that spends a lot of time talking about the Christian life. And the question today comes from a listener named Ronnie.
“Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast — I’ve been richly blessed by it over the years. I know you are a Grape-Nuts guy. I am too! So I chuckled when I read this in G.K. Chesterton’s book ‘Heretics’: ‘There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats Grape-Nuts on principle. The chief error of these people is to be found in the very phrase to which they are most attached — “plain living and high thinking.” These people do not stand in need of, will not be improved by, plain living and high thinking. They stand in need of the contrary. They would be improved by high living and plain thinking.’ Ha!
“Do you ever wonder or harbor a concern over — and this podcast I think may be an expression of — an over-thinking of all the details and options in the Christian life, at the expense of simply living our lives with the joy of impulse? In other words, Pastor John, can we over-think the Christian life?”
Well, a complex, mental, tortured eating of Grape-Nuts is probably inferior to a spontaneous, happy, simple eating of caviar. But I wonder about a spontaneous, simple eating of Grape-Nuts!
The Danger in Thinking
Here’s my answer to whether you can over-think things. The answer is yes; we can over-think our lives. If Ronnie were to ask me if we can under-think our lives, I would say yes; we can under-think our lives.
“Thinking is valuable as a prelude to receiving divine illumination.”
The problem is not just quantity — over- and under-thinking — the problem is quality as well, like thinking carefully and thinking sloppily, or thinking truly and thinking falsely.
Now, whether this podcast — and this very moment as I’m analyzing and picking apart these words — is guilty of over-thinking, under-thinking, sloppy thinking, or false thinking, others will have to judge.
I’m aware of the danger. Just this morning — to give you some examples of how aware I tend to be — I was listening to an audio version of C.S. Lewis’s essay on subjectivism. It’s an excellent essay. I wish everybody would read it.
He was talking about the dangers of turning away from the real world and thinking about the world outside with an excessive introspection. When we do this, we try to discern the true and the beautiful and the absolute, but the criterion for the true and the beautiful and the absolute is inside of us. Then in a typical genius-for-comparisons, Lewis way, he compared turning inside for the sight of the true and the beautiful and the absolute to taking your eyeballs out to look at them.
I was getting dressed, and I just thought, “That is just so unbelievably helpful.” We become blind in the very act of analysis. As we try to see, we become blind. Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect.” Ronnie is waving a big yellow flag in front of Piper, saying, “You sure you want to do this podcast this way?”
Avoid the Meat Grinder
Now of course, Chesterton and Lewis are two happy peas in a pod when it comes to helping us not over-think or under-think or think poorly. But they also offer a warning, because no Christian in the twentieth century applied the razor of the law of non-contradiction to all the follies of the world the way C.S. Lewis did. I think I can say that without exception.
“In the Bible, thinking is never the final goal of life.”
Chesterton did the same thing in his own way. Chesterton wasn’t nearly as given, I think, to a direct analysis as Lewis was. But oh my, behind all those paradoxes there was a razor-sharp mind who did his fair analysis of the world.
Both would agree that logicians can go crazy. That would be my danger, right? Logicians excessively picking apart and analyzing and being logical can go crazy.
Logicians go crazy because they try to get the heavens into their head. But poets are mentally healthy because they try to get their heads into the heavens. That’s what Chesterton said, and they would both agree on that. But both would also agree that one should use his head to avoid putting it in a meat grinder.
Be a Grown-Up
Does the Bible give us help in not falling off the cliffs of over-thinking and under-thinking? I think the Bible does help us, and I’m going to give three kinds of help real quickly.
First, it celebrates thinking. You cannot blow off thinking if you want to be a Bible person. I’ve got three texts.
“Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). So thinking is valuable as a prelude to receiving divine illumination.
“Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). Thinking is a mark of being a grown-up.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Thinking is part of Christian newness in Christ.
That’s the first thing that the Bible does to help us not fall off the cliff of over-thinking or under-thinking. It celebrates the importance. It says, “Be a grown up. Think clearly.”
The End Game
The second thing the Bible does is show us that thinking is not an end in itself.
Thinking exists to serve love (1 Timothy 1:5).
Thinking exists to serve joy (1 Peter 1:8).
Thinking exists to serve peace of heart and mind that surpasses thinking (Philippians 4:8).
You think your way up, and then God the Holy Spirit zooms you on beyond what you can compute. Thinking in the Bible is never the final goal of life.
I wrote a whole book called Think. That was my main point. I think that the Bible never makes thinking the final goal of life. The head, where the thinking is, must do its supporting work so that the heart can do its main work and not be deceived. That’s the second way the Bible helps us not fall off the cliff of over-thinking or under-thinking.
Here’s the third thing the Bible does tells us. The Bible encourages us — and I think at this point Chesterton and Lewis would be jumping up and down with happiness — the Bible directs our thoughts outward. Outward, away from subjectivism and away from introspection to the right comprehension of great and glorious things.
Philippians 4:8–9 are a couple of amazing verses because their simplicity.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
In other words, stop standing in front of the mirror and worrying about your hair and whatever you’re all worked up about but get over to the window and look out. Then he continues:
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
“The head must do its supporting work so that the heart can do its main work and not be deceived.”
Think about the right things, practice the right things, and the God of peace will get very close and be very precious.
Set your thinking not only on what is true, but on what is above. Colossians 3:2–4 says it this way: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” So be about the business of taking your minds and all your thinking and make heaven and all the realities of God in Christ the focus of your thinking.
Then one more, Hebrews 12:2, calls us to look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Hebrews 12:3 calls us to consider him — “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility.”
You want to do something right with your mind and your thinking? Put it on things that are true, put it on things that are above, put it on things that are Christ’s. Put it on Christ himself.
My three suggestions for how the Bible helps us not over-think, not under-think, not think poorly, and not think falsely can be summed up like this:
1. The Bible commends thinking as part of being mature.
2. The Bible keeps thinking in its place and a servant of joy, peace, and love. The touchstone of whether it’s doing its work is its fruit. If it’s not producing joy, peace, and love, it’s not doing its work — we’re thinking badly.
3. The Bible points us away from excessive introspection and subjectivism and says, “Send your thinking again and again to truth and to Christ.”