Redeeming the Christian Mind, Part 3 – What does the Christian Mind Look like?

A basic definition

When I talk about the “Christian mind” I’m talking about “the mental life of Christians informed and dignified by Christian faith including (1) Reason, (2) Perception, (3) Understanding, (4) Deciding, (5) Discerning, (6) Belief, (7) Memory, and (8) Creativity.” Other functions of the mind could be listed here, but the general idea is all the operations of the intellect.

The Christian mind encompasses the entire intellectual life of believers individually and collectively. I’m not, here, trying to answer how mind and brain relate, or haggling over exactly what all is included. Merely defining “mind” is a bigger chore than I can accomplish here. I’m focusing my attention here on the Christian intellect.[1]

“Mind” in Hebrew and Greek

This concept of the Christian mind needs to be filtered across the Greek and Hebrew influence on biblical Christianity. These are the two main languages used to inscribe God’s word, the New Testament in Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew. Not surprisingly, the “mind” is conceptualized a bit differently in these two languages.

In our modern English categories, we tend to follow the Greek understanding of “mind.” The Greeks distinguished between “passions” and “intellect,” we tend to borrow this distinction under the dichotomy of “heart” and “head.” The mind encapsulates the intellect while the emotions, urges, appetites, and will were all thought to be a separate category: “the passions.”[2] The Hebrews, however, tended to fuse passions, will, and intellect into a collective sense of “heart.” The Hebrew notion of “heart” refers to the inner self, the hidden self, or the true self. We see this sense at work in Jeremiah 36:26

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

If we were operating under the Hebrew concept here, it would be wise to say, “follow your heart,” as that refers to all your collective wisdom, discernment, emotional judgments, and the trained instincts of our inner self. Our modern notion of “follow your heart”, however, directly contradicts all that. Instead of pointing to the collective wisdom of our inner-self; the phrase “follow your heart” has come to mean something like “follow your feelings,” “turn off your rational mind,” or just, “do whatever you want!” The notion of “following your heart,” is like a mystical humanistic pseudo-philosophy of life shot through with irrationality, emotionalism, and anti-intellectualism. It may sound sublime to “follow your heart,” but it’s typically just an excuse to do whatever feels good at the moment.

Metaphors to Help Us Understand the Christian Mind

At this point, the Christian mind may still seem abstract because it’s not a material thing. The Christian mind is the not the same as our brains, though these two are often mistaken for each other. The brain is the primary tool, and the physical hardware for our minds, but the mind is more than our brains.[3] We could benefit from biblical metaphors to help understand what exactly is the Christian intellect.

The mind is like a battlefield

One of the most prominent metaphors for the mind is a battlefield. According to Scripture, our minds are a theater of war (Ephesians 6;17-18; 2 Cor. 10:4-5). Spiritual warfare rages all around us and inside us. Our mind is one more scene of violent combat. Our thought life might not shed literal blood, but our thoughts and imagination find ways of shaping our public actions and that can draw blood. And make no mistake, our very souls are at stake in the battle of the mind. We dare not forgot that our intellect is a fortress of the Christian faith and it should never be surrendered. Emotion and action are incredibly important, but they no replacement for the special work of our Christian intellect. Spiritual warfare is raging on the battlefronts of head, heart, and hands, that is, the intellectual, passional, actional aspects of our Christian life.

Fortunately for us, we have some weapons at our disposal. Of course, Scripture and prayer are weapons of spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:17-18), but in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 Paul points out that our thoughts & arguments are also weapons of spiritual warfare

“We are not waging war according to the flesh. 5We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (ESV)

Following the warfare metaphor, all the different ideas and beliefs that constitute a biblical Christian worldview, they are like soldiers in this spiritual war. And like any soldiers they need resources. They need ammunition and they need food. Our mental life needs plenty of sustenance so our worldview can defend against bad ideas, unwarranted doubts, and destructive beliefs. In this way, a well-trained mind can help nourish and care for everything else about us. In biblical language the command is simple: we should fill our minds with good things.

“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.” (Philippians 4:8; ESV)

Notice that Paul’s command is that we “think” about these things. He didn’t say “do these things” or “believe these things” or “feel things.” He said, think about them. This might seem oddly passive and distant, but I suspect Paul understands that when we feast constantly on good ideas, careful thought, and beautiful truth we cultivate a voracious appetite for more of the good even while we can’t help but act on these truths. The mouth speaks the hearts overflow, and the heart is the wellspring of life.

Furthermore, this battle is not against “flesh and blood” (other people), but ultimately against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (See Ephesians 6:12). So we need to be suited up for that kind of battle, wearing our “spiritual armor” (Eph. 6:11). In this way, training the Christian mind is part of our discipleship, just as equipment, boot camp, and field experience are part of battle-readiness. In biblical language, this battle-ready discipleship  is the “renewing of our minds.”

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.” (Romans 12:2; ESV)

In this battle of the mind, Christianity dictates that our loyalties are to God. We fight under the banner of Christ and no other. We engage in intellectual warfare to the glory of God. Put another way, our minds are designed for worshipping God. This reality shouldn’t be surprising since everything we “do, in word or deed,” should be “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Scripture expresses this homage as “loving God with our minds.”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

The soldier’s zeal for battle is drawn from his loyalty to his fellow soldiers (akin to Christian fellowship), and his passion for the cause (i.e., the glory of God). And if he charges into battle half-heartedly, or as a half-wit, then he is just a casualty waiting to happen. Warfare is no joke. It demands total commitment because it’s a total sacrifice.

The mind is like a perimeter defense

The Christian mind can also be thought of as a security system, or more specifically, as a perimeter defense. When we have well-informed and well-trained intellect, we are in a better position for defense in spiritual warfare. As Paul says,  our spiritual battle is not against “flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12), and “though we walk in the flesh,” he says, “we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (1 Cor. 10:3-4). The mind is the foremost field of battle in spiritual warfare.

Paul goes on to explain, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” (2 Cor. 10:3-5, ESV). When we have a fit and well-informed mind, we have a better security system in place to help protect the things we hold dear inside. Paul wasn’t kidding when he was talking about “demolishing argument” and “taking ideas captive.” When we have a strong Christian mind, we can deflect many of the enemies attacks, and capture bad ideas for interrogation.

Our minds are not, however, the only means of defense. We also have prayer, Scripture memorization, the fellowship of believers, material support, physical health and exercise, rest and medicine, and various means of soul-care. We need emotional and social health, as well as healthy families and healthy communities, and even then, we still need direct access to the throne of God if we are going to repel the strongest advances of the enemy.

The mind is like a garden

In apologetics, the metaphors tend to favor combat and competition – warfare and sports. But, there are other ways to exercise our minds with sharp apologetics without having to resort to these macho metaphors. Our minds also work like a garden insofar as we can plant, water, feed, and care for the various operations of our minds: cognition, perception, discernment, imagination, belief, reasoning, will-power, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, etc. When we can cultivate good and godly minds, we are that much better prepared for the mature demands of Christian living, including the universal commissioning of the church to make disciples (Matthew 27:18-20) and defend the faith (1 Peter 3:15). A well-ordered and well-trained mind is a thing of beauty requiring skillful and deliberate caretaking combined with steady growth and maturity.

The mind is like money

Another metaphor for the mind is currency, money. We have various resources in our reach, and as stewards of God, we are responsible to use, care for, and develop the things he’s given us (Matthew 25:14-29). It’s hard to think of a more valuable inborn resource than your own mind. Your mind is too valuable to be wasted, left on the shelf, or subjected to mind-numbing wasteful behaviors (like alcoholism, video-game addiction, willful-ignorance, etc.). With a fit mind, you can understand more, discern better, anticipate problems, find solutions, and exercise penetrating wisdom cutting through distractions going straight to the heart of matters. When we fail to exercise our minds to the glory of God, settling instead for mental laziness, ignorance, and inertia, we are poor stewards of God’s resources. God is no more impressed with mental sloth and gluttony than He is with any other kind of slothful gluttony. Your mind is entrusted to you for growing, strengthening, maturing, and exercising to your God-given fullest.

The Christian Mind should be

So far, we have a general understanding of what the Christian mind is like. It’s like a battlefield, a perimeter defense, a garden, and it’s like money. But we can better understand what all that means if we look into specific aims for the Christian mind. Each of the following capacities and attributes describe a facet of the Christian mind:

Wise

James 1:5 directs believers to ask God for wisdom. And the consistent message across the Wisdom literature in Scripture, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, is that wisdom is a precious treasure to be sought above all knowledge, wealth, or power.

Intellectual

Without surrendering to excess or neglect, “intellectual” can be an important facet of the Christian mind. Consider the example of Daniel the prophet or King Solomon. Both of them combined great wisdom with formal education and a disposition of learning and inquiry. See also, Prov. 18:15

Curious

Wise and intellectual people are often quite curious as they love to explore and discover new ideas, new uses for things, and refine, test, and develop theories about loves learning, values ideas. Curiosity is implied in the biblical mandate to “seek knowledge” (Prov. 18:15), “call out for insight” and “understanding” (Prov. 2:2-5)

More than just “smart”

Scripture distinguishes between “worldly wisdom” and “divine wisdom” (1 Cor. 3:18-19; Colossians 2:8). Some of that “worldly wisdom” is what we would call “smarts.” And that’s what we typically get on conventional education. There’s nothing wrong with seeking worldly wisdom in the sense of learning about different subjects in school, learning how people act and how society operates. But, the Christian mind is more than just an “education” in school, and more than just “street smarts.” The Christian can also account for the spiritual dimension, understanding how God’s plans are operating through worldly events. It’s not that “divine wisdom” and “worldly wisdom” are strict contradictories. It’s more like, godly wisdom can embrace all the truths about the world, as well as the truths about God and his plan in everything. This means Christians should draw some different conclusions about human nature, marriage and family, science and technology, God and government, right and wrong. And so we have more than just “worldly wisdom” informing our behavior, we read all things by the light of God’s glory.

Moral

The moral dimension of the Christian mind is suggested back in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In that teaching passage, Jesus critiques the beliefs and practices of Pharisaic Judaism, the leading authority in public Jewish life at the time. His critique is not that their legalistic ways were too strict. Rather, he points out that their approach to the law was too loose. They were trying to manufacture holiness entirely by outward behaviors, and public works. They interpreted holiness, righteousness, and religious faithfulness strictly as a matter of works. They were the prototype of “works-based” righteousness. Jesus, on the other hand, faulted them for forgetting the mind. They had failed to realize that holiness begins within; it begins in thoughts, beliefs, and intentions. Murder, adultery, and theft begin internally, in our minds. In the course of Jesus’s ministry and the rest of the New Testament we see the balancing effect of grace and law; but, my point here is that our intellect is morally charged so that we are morally responsible to God for how we develop and use our minds.

The Christian mind is also morally affected by sin. When we indulge in sinful behaviors, beliefs, or thoughts, we can be affected in all sorts of ways. Our sins can stir up addictive behavior, anxious thoughts, misguided beliefs, negative thought patterns, destructive neural pathways, and sinful compulsions. Sin can cloud our judgment, obstruct our learning, and turn us away from wisdom. And when we enslaved to sin in the sense of being addicted to it, or in-love with it, that evil acts like a gravitational force pulling our heart, mind, and hands into alignment with it. You may have seen this happen when an otherwise “good kid” starts drinking underage and sleeping with their girlfriend or boyfriend. They may start acting rebellious, lying to their parents, and hanging out with “the bad crowd,” all because their sin is pressuring them to bring their friendships, attitudes, and behaviors into conformity with that sin. In that event, we may think we are holding onto our sins – able to let it go whenever we want. But in reality, sin acts like a master and not a slave. It has a hold on us, and we are fools for thinking we had control. You can imagine the effect on our minds when we deliberately indulge in sin over a long period of time.

Goal-Directed

The Christian mind is also goal-directed according to Colossians 3:17 and 1Cor. 10:31. The fancy word for this is “teleology,” referring to “goal-directedness.” to use Rick Warren’s words, our minds are “purpose driven.” We have built-in purposes for which we are made. We are to “love God and love others” (Mt 22:37-39; Lk  10:27; Mk 12:30-31), “seek first the kingdom of God” (Mt 6:33), “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” (Mt 22:39), and we are to glorify God above all (Col 3:17; 1 Cor 10:31). Now God did not program us like robots. We have the ability to cooperate with God’s purposes in our lives, including the ones that are hardwired into our nature. But we also have the ability to resist our teleology. We are made to worship God, but when we refuse to do that, we are still worshippers at heart, so we turn our worship towards false religions, ourselves, celebrities, love affairs, career-goals, or most anything we can imagine.

Balanced with the heart and the hands

One of the unfortunate side-effects of our church life and Christian living is that we tend to swing back and forth between extremes. Like pendulums, we swing between legalism and libertine excess, charismania and spiritual inertia, passionate reformers and frozen traditionalists, service-oriented ministers and intellectual students. This habit of going to extremes creates a challenge for the Christian mind. On one extreme people can be anti-intellectual, distrusting all rational argumentation and critical thinking, treating formal education like an anti-Christian conspiracy, and shying away from a range of activities to grow our mind. But on the other extreme, people can virtually worship the intellect, as if God were nothing but an intriguing thought to be understood entirely in rational mental categories. Neither of these extremes is true, wise, or good. The Christian mind is not designed to be a stand-alone entity. It’s not like we can function as the body of Christ if all we have are gifts of the intellect. The Christian mind is no more or nor less important than the heart or the hands. Paul describes the gifting of the church as a unity of body parts in a functional healthy body (1 Corinthians 12). Our intellectual gifts are important and shouldn’t be neglected but we should never mistake “thinking” for “doing,” or “contemplating” for “compassion.” The Christian mind works best in harmony with a loving, compassionate, heart-life, and strong skillful hands of service.

***See the first post: Part 1 – Some Biblical Starting Points***

***See the second post: Part 2 – My Own Introduction to the Christian Mind***

***Forthcoming – Part 4 – Why Does It Matter and How do We do this?***

 

Endnotes

[1] I may sometimes say “head” in reference to the mind, the intellect, and so on, but I do so metaphorically as in the triad: head, heart, and hands. I will refer later to this triad as the intellect (head), will, and emotions (heart), and actions (hands). When I say “Christian mind” I’m referring broadly to what we know as “intellect” so I may use “Christian intellect” or “Christian mind” interchangeably.

[2]Some Greek-thinkers up through the middle-ages and today conceived of the passions in a negative and disparaging light. Passions were often considered trappings of our physical body, annoying irrational urges and dumb dispositions that drag down. You may sometimes hear of “platonic dualism” referring to the two facets of our humanity: the immaterial-intellectual aspect which is enlightened and celebrated, and the material-passional aspect which is deluded and disparaged. I’m not assuming any “low” or insulting connotations to the physical, passional, emotional or otherwise “heart” aspect of our humanity. Our heart and our mind are both beautiful gifts from God, and both are implicated and affected by the Adamic fall (Genesis 3).

[3]This distinction between “brain” and “mind” is part of what’s called “mind-body dualism.” Dualism refers to the belief that human persons are a unity of two parts: a material part (the body, including the brain) and an immaterial part (variously identified as mind/soul/spirit). For a defense of mind-body dualism see J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics, 3d ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000).

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4 thoughts on “Redeeming the Christian Mind, Part 3 – What does the Christian Mind Look like?

  1. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. — Blaise Pascal.

    There have been some interesting studies done about reason and emotion.

    Reason is used to support emotional decisions. Reason does not decide; logic is incapable of making a decision. It can debate the good and bad, but in the end, emotion decides. http://bigthink.com/experts-corner/decisions-are-emotional-not-logical-the-neuroscience-behind-decision-making

    So when you say “the mental life of Christians informed and dignified by Christian faith including (1) Reason, (2) Perception, (3) Understanding, (4) Deciding, (5) Discerning, (6) Belief, (7) Memory, and (8) Creativity” — I’m going to point out that REASON does not include 5 of those. You cannot understand someone without compassion (heart). You cannot decide without emotion (heart). You cannot discern without feeling the consequences (heart). You cannot believe without identification (heart). You cannot create without an emotional drive (heart).

    Excluding heart from the Christian mind is like cutting off your body from your head.

    1. Marika, thanks for your insights. I agree that we should never exclude the heart from the head; a well-rounded and responsible Christian walk with utilize all our resources in the common goal of glorifying God.

      Regarding your point about emotions, while some people are more prone to let emotion lead their decision making, it is possible to harness at least some of our passional nature and make decisions contrary to our emotional preferences. This is a mark of maturity; it’s “adulting.” it can be difficult to discipline our emotions but it can be done.

      Also, I’m fond of the work by David Solomon, “Not Passions Slave,” where he distinguishes emotions as a kind of judgment as opposed to the physiological impulses which he identifies as “passions” (ex., hunger, sexual appetite, lethargy, etc.) Our emotions are different from passions, he argues, because they have a rational component. They entail a cognitive act of judgment. For example, if your child arrives home 45 minutes after curfew you may be very upset with him, but your emotional judgment will change instantaneously if you found out that he was late because someone wrecked into his car when he was driving home. Instead of accusing him of irresponsibility and carelessness, and getting angry with your child, your anger turns into compassion and relief as you try to assess whether he’s okay. Your judgment of the situation changed, and so your emotional state shifted instantaneously. You may have had residual physiological responses that took a while to shift (i.e., heart rate, adrenaline, perspiration, defensive-response, etc.). But your emotion was an instant switch because of new knowledge.

      Nevertheless, I think you are correct in recognizing the important role of the heart-life within a vibrant Christian faith. The heart and head should not be treated as enemies, but rather friends who work best together. The head and heart work best in service to each other, along with the hands, and all of which are to be directed in service to God.

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