One of the most common questions I have received on any topic during my brief 13 years in ministry is this: “How do you engage the mind without losing the heart?”
It seems that everyone I meet has a personal or second-hand horror story about a chipper, well-intentioned believer bouncing off to seminary or Bible college only to have their once-vibrant relationship with God cool to an ember (at best) or be snuffed out completely (at worst). But, experience has taught me that this isn’t just a problem with which seminarians are grappling. This hits everyone who spends time trying to know God better, be it through sermons, books, podcasts, discipleship relationships, or small groups. There is a perceived imminent danger of growing cold toward God.
As the logic goes, one can either engage God with the mind (study the Bible, learn theology, strive to know as much about God and His world as humanly possible) or one can engage God emotionally (spend time with Him, develop an intimate relationship, love him). It’s either a nose-stuck-in-a-book-in-my-ivory-tower type of relationship with Jesus or a frolicking-and-rolling-around-on-clouds-like-he’s-my-significant-other type of relationship with Jesus.
So, which will YOU choose? Will you have an intellectual relationship with God or a devotional one?
Hopefully you already see the folly of this dichotomy and recognize that this is one of those common both/and tensions and not merely an either/or dilemma.
I had a seminary professor address this very issue early on in my post-grad career. Before a class of men and women who were wondering not if but when their love for God would grow cold, he rhetorically asked in a tone akin to a rebuke, “Why should knowing God more EVER lead to loving Him less?”
The answer is that it shouldn’t. Knowing God more should always lead to loving Him more. Likewise, loving God should always involve truth about him as he’s revealed himself in his Word. Similar to a marriage, one cannot rightly love someone if they know nothing about them just as they cannot merely amass knowledge that doesn’t show implications emotionally.
But, what should this look like for you practically? My encouragement—for seminarians, Bible college students, and Christians in general—is that you strive to be devotionally intellectual and intellectually devotional.
We must struggle to know God better, though we will never fully understand him or exhaust the wealth of human knowledge that can be gained about him. Why is this important?
The summary of all of what God commanded involves loving him with your mind (Matt 22:37-40).
God seems to have always expected a certain level of intellectual rigor in studying and meditating on his words so that his people don’t forget him and go after idols (Deut 6:6-15).
Though God’s children shouldn’t boast in their own wisdom, God is still pleased with our knowing and understanding who He is (Jer 9:23-34).
Cultivating our intellect is part of our mission to the world (1 Pet 3:13-17).
The list could go on. We often speak of people who “have a great heart for the Lord,” but it is just as biblical to speak of people who “have a great mind for the Lord.” The trick, however, is to engage our minds in a way that also stirs our heart’s affections. After all, it is possible to keep everything in the realm of head-knowledge to such an extent that you are a hearer of the Word and not a doer of the Word; it’s just not necessarily so. In brief, we must not be merely intellectual, but devotionally intellectual.
If you’re in seminary or a Bible institute, try to make your personal time in the Word (“quiet times”, if you prefer) a deeper, prayerful meditation through the material you’ve been studying in class. If you’re listening to sermons, reading books, or studying through Scripture (which should include all of us), make it a habit to spend personal reflection time on the same passages or topics that were covered in those books and sermons.
In other words, don’t just jump from a class or a sermon dealing with Ephesians 2 to your scheduled “quiet time” where you must delve back into Exodus because that’s what your Bible-in-a-year schedule says you should do. Rather, spend time meditating on, praying through, and applying Ephesians 2 to your life and allow the truth of God’s Word to seep way down deep into your heart! There is a time to take in big gulps of Scripture and plug along in a Bible reading plan, but don’t do it at the expense of being devotionally intellectual. Don’t be so quick to bifurcate your intellectual pursuit of Christ and your devotional pursuit of Christ. The two are not easily separated. Instead of having two divergent tracks in your life (study time and devotional time), intentionally line them up as much on one track as possible, especially if you are part of an institute of higher learning where you will struggle with the “extra” time needed for devotional exercises.
This is largely covered above since this is the opposite side of the aforementioned coin, but it bears re-emphasizing: Be devotional! Don’t just have a time carved out where you engage in deep study of the Word. Rather, make your study or reading time a devotional one.
There is a trick here as well. The key to a vibrant devotional life is to not be merely devotional, but intellectually devotional. Do not vacate “the mind” in pursuit of “the heart” (a common mistake which has more to do with Hinduism and Buddhism than biblical Christianity, I might add). There are many Christians who have a zeal that is not in accordance with knowledge. This must obviously be curbed. We must filter what we feel like God is saying to us through the truth of his Word.
With the Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries gearing up for their fall semesters, and many churches rolling out their fall small group and discipleship curriculum, we must remember what it looks like to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Be devotionally intellectual. Be intellectually devotional. Be Christian.
Jason works as Director of Resources & Downline Builder for Downline Ministries. Jason and his wife, Kim, have two daughters, Sydney and Sophie, and are members of First Evangelical Church.