Ignorant Christians

Dec 30, 2008 |Gary Thomas

Your choice: Grow increasingly stupid, or study to show yourself approved.

Ignorance is one charge I'd like to see the church vigorously refute by example. We need a generation of first-rate thinkers, but we also need a generation in which every Christian sees himself or herself as a scholar.

Not, mind you, as an academic, but as one who takes seriously Paul's charge to "watch your life and doctrine carefully; persevere in them because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim. 4:16).

J.P. Moreland argues that "The spiritually mature person is a wise person."J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. (Navpress: Colorado, 1997), p. 39 According to Scripture, the mind of Christ and God's wisdom are something given to us, but also something that we're told to cultivate (1 Cor. 2:16, Prov. 4:1-13). A mature Christian mind that can teach other believers, defend the faith, and lead others to understanding comes about from a life of intentional study.

If you're not the "student" type, you still owe it to yourself, your God, and this world to develop a mature, wise mind.

The consequences of ignorance are many and severe: Our witness suffers greatly from Christians who speak up without having really thought through what they're saying. Without a developed mind, we are easily led astray by foolish beliefs that the church dismissed as heresy centuries ago.

Ignorance also has moral implications; John Piper has said that behind most wrong living is wrong thinking. This wrong thinking has a "snowball" effect. As my therapist friend, Dr. Mitch Whitman, puts it, we become "increasingly stupid." When we shut God off in any area of our lives, but especially our minds, we become vulnerable to any foolish whim; our emotions and passions will rule us and degrade us.

Worse, we even lose the spiritual perception that otherwise might warn us about what is happening.

Paul warned about this when he wrote to the Ephesians:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. (Eph. 4:17-19)

Christianity exalts the role of the mind as a necessary part of right living, but our faith is unique in stressing how our behavior and our minds influence and act upon each other. When our thinking goes, our behavior doesn't lag far behind. And when our behavior slips, our minds begin to slip as well.

Cultivating the mind of Christ gives believers great potential to showcase penetrating insight and compelling truth. Unfortunately, cultivating such a mind can require considerable effort and persistent study. How sad it is when people called to the ministry try to take a shortcut and instead of calling people to a higher truth, they try to mask their lack of understanding with cleverness or lighthearted entertainment.

Today's faithful have a lot to live up to. The Christian church has thrived for more than 2,000 years because it has largely out-thought its opponents. When we fail to cultivate the mind and wisdom of Christ, we are forced into adopting shallow substitutes — movie clips, clever PowerPoint productions, funny jokes — to mask the emptiness of our thinking.

I'm not suggesting there is no place for movie clips, or that PowerPoint can never be an effective aid, or that humor has no place — I incorporate all three at various times in my own ministry. But I am suggesting that our presentations should be carried first and foremost by persuasive truth and heart-rending insight. Teachers must give their minds to God, so that God can give His thoughts to the congregation.

True Worship

If developing your mind has been little more than an after-thought, it's time to make a change. Paul suggests that a Christ-molded mind is the foundation of transformation. Consider this familiar passage:

Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — which is your spiritual worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is — his good, pleasing, and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

These verses confirm that while God is the agent of change, we have a responsibility to surrender ourselves to God's change. As C.E.B. Cranfield puts it,

The use of the imperative [be transformed] is consonant with the truth that, while this transformation is not the Christians' own doing but the work of the Holy Spirit, they nevertheless have a real responsibility in the matter — to let themselves be transformed, to respond to the leading and pressure of God's Spirit.C.E.B. Cranfield, "The Epistle to the Romans" (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979), p. 607.

So how do we allow God to transform our minds? What are our points of cooperation?

Become a diligent student

Every month I eagerly read through Runner's World magazine. It's not an "obligation" for me to do this. Because I love running, I want to read about the latest training techniques and running gear. I revel in the inspiring personal stories; I check my calendar against upcoming races; I want to know about the latest shoes; I even pore over the ads.

The Bible could well be called God's World. If we truly love God's world, Bible study will become a joy. We'll eagerly embrace filling our minds with His inspired words; and we'll also want to read the insights of others as they interact with God's Word, which is why being a diligent student also usually means reading other books.

Is it possible to be a faithful disciple and not be a diligent student? No. How we study will differ according to our gifts, personality, and temperament. Whether we study should not. Contemplative prayer, social activism, fellowship, and enthusiastic worship all have their place; but if Paul says transformation includes the renewal of our minds, I don't believe it is possible for us to be serious disciples of Christ if we do not also become serious students of His truth.

We mustn't allow our own or someone else's laziness or lack of fondness for reading, discipline and study to imprison them in spiritual immaturity. Someone may prefer not to exercise, but if they are 50 pounds overweight, fighting off diabetes, high blood pressure, and clogged arteries, then they had better get over it. They will never get healthy until they find a way to exercise.

In the same way, if someone is ignorant of God's Word, then they will reflect that ignorance in their beliefs, their speech, their purpose in life, their motivations and in all sorts of spiritual illnesses. They need to get over their distaste of disciplined study. We have many ways to "study" these days, so we have less excuse to remain ignorant than ever before in the history of the church. That's not hyperbole; it's simple fact.

Christianity is not like some eastern religions that try to circumvent the mind with meditations designed to put the mind in a state of paralysis (such as meditations on the sound of "one hand clapping"). Christianity showcases a reasonable and rational explanation of the universe and our relationship with the God who created us. Ignorance isn't just sin, it leads to ever-increasing sin, and it has no place in a maturing believer's life.

Sit at the feet of proven teachers

All of us are products of our own prejudices, personal blinders and lack of experience. Fortunately, God has gifted many women and men with insights that can take us to new heights. What an opportunity we have to sit at the feet of trusted and recognized thinkers and teachers.

My writing career launched with the publication of Seeking the Face of God — an exploration of the most common themes of Christian spirituality according to the great Christian classics. C.S. Lewis explains that any new book is "on trial," needing to be tested. But many books have come down through the ages to help us understand the ways of God. The spiritual classics allow us to step out of our century, and even out of our traditions, so that our minds can be stretched and expanded beyond their current limitations.

R. Somerset Ward puts it so well:

Herein lies the great justification of the practice of devotional reading. It is, in fact, the use of, and cooperation with, the great process of inspiration which is forever going on in the world: a process whereby the power and wisdom of God is continually flowing out into the world to aid the growth and development of man's soul.R. Somerset Ward, "To Jerusalem," (1931; reprint, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1994), p. 162.

Ward goes on to explain how devotional classics "act, like the starting handle of a motor, by drawing in some of the living power of God to enliven our lack of life."Ibid. If you're not particularly challenged or inspired by people in your own community, or even your own century, you are invited to mine the passion, conviction and deep insight of brothers and sisters who lived in earlier times and in different places.

In addition to the spiritual classics, make room on at least a yearly basis to read a good work of what is called "systematic theology." Respected teachers like Wayne Grudem, R. C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and many others that your pastor might recommend can help you educate yourself with essential truths.

Pivot

The biblical instruction is clear: We need to take charge of our minds. On their own, our minds can be instruments of anxiety, doubt, worry, fear and romantic fallacies. Paul urges us to exert ourselves more strongly in the arena of our minds than in any other area of the spiritual life:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil. 4:8)

He's even more forceful when writing to the Corinthians:

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor. 14:20)

We need to mature to the point where we take charge of our minds, Paul insists, because God holds us accountable to do so. Jesus challenged some teachers of the law for their faulty reasoning when He said, "Why are you thinking these things?" (Mark 2:8).

Some Christians act as if they are helpless victims to their thinking, as if they can't stop certain fantasies, infatuations, negative thinking, ruminating on fears or hateful prejudice. This simply doesn't square with a biblical worldview that tells us to "pivot" toward pure thought. We are taught to stop thinking about evil and to start thinking about what is pure or admirable or excellent.

For understandable reasons, we give our brains a little more power than they deserve, but ultimately, the Bible tells us we mustn't allow any organ to rule over us — not our stomachs, not our genitalia, and not our brains. We must take dominion over each aspect of our humanity, surrender it to God, and allow it to be transformed by God.

Give your mind to God; let Him develop it, shape it, fill it and use it. Let's make "ignorant Christians" a thing of the past.

Copyright 2008 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.

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