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Faith, Reason, & Intelligence

I have a friend who no longer professes faith in Christ. She is smart, very smart, but is now saying things that don’t make sense, are contradictory and just don’t sound logical. How can someone so smart be so unreasonable?

The short answer: the Bible teaches us that our hearts are stronger than our brains. This answer requires some unpacking.

In Psalm 115, the Psalmist says that those who make idols become like them (Ps 115:8). This is another way of saying that we become what we love. Where Rationalism says, “You become what you think,” the Bible teaches, “You become what you love.” We order our thoughts and actions around the things that we love the most. Thus, Solomon warns us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23).

Because we are lovers before we are thinkers, the “gods” that we serve will shape our thinking. To put it another way: we adjust our minds to justify our loves. This explains why the best Christian apologists recognize that unbelievers’ primary problem with the Gospel is not intellectual, but moral. The unbeliever hates God and suppresses what he knows to be true in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). He loves the wrong things and uses his reason to justify his disordered love. Men like D.A. Carson, James Jordan and Tim Keller therefore ask potential apostates, “With whom are you sleeping?” When one loves sex more than God, he will employ his thoughts to justify his immorality; he will assemble every argument possible to elevate the god of sex over the true God.

Various scholars provide examples from ordinary life to illustrate how we all rationalize our disordered loves. One example that I have read in several works is that of the helicopter mother who “loves” her son Johnny so much that she cannot handle the truth about his habitual stealing. In defending him she does not make sense and contradicts herself. When Johnny is caught stealing, she begins by denying it: “It is impossible. Johnny would never do that. He’s such a good boy.” When she is given the evidence, she makes excuses: “Someone put him up to it. He was coerced. He is obviously a victim.” When more evidence conclusively demonstrates that Johnny is the ringleader of a bunch of thugs, she still protests and refuses to see what everyone else sees clearly. She suppresses the truth not because she is dumb or ignorant, but precisely because of her disordered love for her son. In fact, she may be highly intelligent and manufacture Ph.D. level arguments that actually make some sense given her disordered love for her son.

I find it remarkable that unbelieving scholars are beginning to recognize the flaw with Rationalism. Jonathan Haidt, for example, is a secular Jew whose psychological research clearly demonstrates that humans love before they think. Hence, they use their minds to justify their loves.

Though your question is about a friend who has lost her faith, allow me to make a few additional comments about believers.

As Christians, we seek to take every thought captive to obey Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5). Why? Because we love Christ more than anyone or anything; he is our chief treasure, our chief desire, our chief possession, our first love. Because we love Jesus, we want to be conformed unto his blessed image: we want to think his thoughts after him and we want to live as he lived.

Often when Christians make huge, radical, and seemingly inexplicable changes in their views it is not because they have studied Scripture deeply and arrived at a new position through rational inquiry. Sometimes this happens, but rarely. Rather, in most cases, Christians make radical changes in their thinking because they have unconfessed idols in their lives that necessitate a change in their thinking. Let me give you one example. I know of a few pastors, men who once held conservative and orthodox views on several issues. But their unconfessed sin found them out and they were justly removed from the ministry. Guess what happened? That’s right. You guessed it. They suddenly experienced a paradigm shift, rejected their old views and embraced a new understanding of Scripture. Why is this? I don’t believe it was because of prayerful and careful study of the text of Holy Scripture. I believe it was because they had made an idol of ministry and desperately wanted to return to the pulpit, not matter what the Scriptures actually teach.

All of this is to say that we must be exceedingly careful to guard our hearts. We often deceive ourselves into thinking that believe one thing, but over time our loves reveal what we truly believe. If we love Jesus above our else, our thinking will become clearer, more biblical, and altogether lovely. But when we love an idol, when our love is disordered, we increasingly organize our thoughts around that object. In this sense, then, we become consistent: we become like the god/idol/thing we love. To become a great thinker, we most love God above all else. And since our love for God grows slowly, over a prolonged period, we often do not recognize what we truly think until we are advanced in years. Then, when our thoughts are more clearly in line with our loves, it becomes obvious to all what we love and why we think the way that we do.

Guard your heart above all else, for it will rule your thoughts such that you will employ your mind to justify the object of your deepest affections. There is nothing more glorious (and I only slightly exaggerate) than to witness a 50+ year-old believer using his mind to articulate the Good News of the God whom he loves above all else. Conversely, there is nothing more discouraging or ugly than to see a 65 year-old professing believer use his mind to defend the unconfessed idols that he wilfully refuses to put to death, idols that everyone in his life can see clearly but to which he has blinded himself. Sadly, such people become increasingly lonely and isolated since the company of the foolish grey headed is not pleasant. God created us to put childish affections behind us as we grow up in wisdom, and when we choose to act contrary to nature, our foolishness becomes a stench to all.

One of the best ways to guard our hearts is to cultivate deep and meaning mentoring/discipleship relationships with those who clearly love Jesus above all else. We all have various kinds of relationships and no single relationship can satisfy all of our needs. We have work friends, family friends, social friends, school friends, etc., and Christians also needs friends who will enflame our hearts with a love for Jesus. We may not see these friends daily or even weekly, but when we are wrestling with the issues of life, we turn to them for guidance, support and pray. Why? Because they love Jesus, point us to Jesus and encourage us to follow Jesus.

Because our hearts are idol factories and our indwelling sin often blinds us to our idolatries and disordered loves, we need to be proactive and intentional in inviting other lovers of Jesus to speak into our lives. Do you have any such friends in your life? Do you seek their advice and counsel before you make major/life decisions?

And this brings me back to your question. My hunch is that your friend made her choice largely in isolation from godly, Jesus-loving disciples. She probably gave her heart to an idol in her life – a disordered love – and refused to invite believers to wrestle with her. She knew the truth of God and his Word, but suppressed it in unrighteousness. Having done so, she shared her carefully crafted rationale with you, not because she actually reasoned her way to unbelief, but because she needed to defend her disordered love at all costs.  

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