When I was approached last December about the possibility of bringing this commencement address, it was because of the thought, or hope, that I might be able to cast light on the problem of how to balance the intellectual life with the spiritual life. I work as a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, which calls for something in the way of an intellectual life – or at least a sturdy appearance thereof – and I have recently published a book on the spiritual life and its disciplines. These facts are perhaps what stimulated the generous thought that I could say something interesting and useful about this problem of balance within the individual Christian, and within the body of the Church; of the intellectual life and the spiritual.

Why Is Balance a Problem?

We need to be very candid, right at the start, about why there is a problem of balance” here, and what kind of problem it is. And let us frankly say that, in our contemporary world, the Christian who expresses concern about this balance is rarely, if ever, concerned about our being too spiritual. The problem is not how to keep spirituality in check, so that it will not overwhelm the intellect, but how to keep the intellect in check so that it will not overwhelm the spiritual. Is this not so?

When we speak of balancing the intellectual life with the spiritual life, the threat which concerns us is a threat to spirituality. We do not speak of the problem of balancing the spiritual life with the intellectual life, as if the spiritual life might run amuck and devastate our intellectual life. The intellectual life is not, in our churches, or in our culture, thought of as something threatened – or perhaps as something which would be sorely missed if it, perchance, happened to get devastated, as, indeed, it has been devastated.

In the abstract, if a balance is what we want, we can’t have either side outweighing the other. But the recent past of fundamental Christianity, which expresses itself in the rightly conservative segment of the evangelical movement, has clearly determined that the threat here is that of intellect against spirituality, not of spirituality against intellect. And we know, from the Bible as well as life, that the threat of intellect to spirituality is a very real one, by no means to be underestimated. Paul warns us of the contrast between knowledge and love: knowledge puffs up, love builds up (I Corinthians 8:2). And: if I understand all mysteries, and all knowledge… and have not love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:2).

So we are warned.

Intellect Isn’t the Threat

And yet this is not the whole story of the spiritual life. Stupidity and ignorance, even if chosen in response to warnings against pride of intellect, do not guarantee love or spirituality. Would that life were so simple! But disdain — even mere lack — of intelligence, of thought, of knowledge, proves itself to be capable of as great a pride, and of as great a lovelessness or hatred, as does the greatest scholarship or intellectual ability. There is no advantage to spiritual life from mere ignorance or intellectual dimness.

It is, after all, not intellect that is a threat to spirituality, but pride of intellect, a reliance on, a trust in, a worship of intellect. And it is in this truth that we find the key to balancing the intellectual and the spiritual life.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil. —Proverbs 3:5 – 7NASV

The situation here is exactly analogous to that of money. We are repeatedly warned about money in the Bible. Jesus made it clear that money can be a threat to spirituality, and drew the wrath of the covetous Pharisees down upon him by telling them that they could not serve both God and mammon (Luke 16:13 – 14). He warned that the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things” (Mark 4:19) are the thorns – and how well He named them, thorns”– that choke the Word of the Kingdom in the heart of the hearer so that it bears no fruit. Riches are deceitful in that they create an illusion of a power, a security, and a merit which belongs only to God. This is the lesson of the story of the rich farmer who because of his wealth thought his soul was in his own care, and said to it:

Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry. But God said unto him: Fool! This night thy soul shall be required of thee. Then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. —Luke 12:19 – 21

Shall we then regard riches as evil, in the face of such dire failures, of such great temptation to trust them? Many people today, sincere believers in Christ, are sure in their heart of hearts that it is intrinsically more spiritual to be poor than to be in comfortable” circumstances, and certainly than to be rich. Father Ernesto Cardenal, Minister of Culture for the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, and professor Alasdair MacIntyre of Notre Dame University, well-known spokesmen for contemporary radical ideas, express a wide-spread and powerful feeling against riches and the rich when they frankly affirm that on Jesus’ teaching no rich person can be saved. (See Chapter 10 of my book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, where I discuss the question, Is Poverty Spiritual?”) But of course they are quite mistaken; and, dominated by one of the illusions of our age, they miss the entire point of Jesus’ teaching. Just as ignorance and stupidity cannot protect you from pride and lovelessness, so having no money cannot alone prevent you from loving it, worshipping it, trusting it. Perhaps few worship and trust money as much as those who don’t have it. Perhaps being rich and miserable is one of the best correctives — though even that does not successfully cure everyone — of the deceitfulness of riches.

How Can the Intellect Serve God?

But what is most important for us to understand, with regard to both money and intellect, is how we can properly serve God in them. To renounce them is not the solution. Apart from some very clear and special calling that we individually may have to do so, that is to abdicate our responsibility before God to bring His reign, His Kingdom rule, by actions which He will not do for us, to bear upon the created realities where He has placed us.

The intellect is one of the created realms of power. The human world moves upon ideas, so far as it depends upon human actions; for actions come from the mind and heart of man. It is through the perverted ideational system of mankind that Satan exercises whatever power he has, as the prince of this world, in relation to human affairs. When he came to tempt Eve, he approached her with a question – an intellectual approach:

Yea, hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? (Genesis 3:1)

And then a lie:

Ye shall not surely die! (Genesis 3:4)

And then a lying attack upon God’s character:

God does not want you to be like Him. (Genesis 3:5)

(This is in fact the outcome of much that passes for Biblical scholarship: Yea, hath God said?”)

Romans Chapter 1 then explains how mankind, once fallen, refused to glorify God as they knew Him to be (Romans 1:20 – 23), and how this led to the declension culminating in the historical reality of human existence that we see around us on all hands, and perhaps not a little as it afflicts our own souls:

Being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. —Romans 1:29 – 32

And all of this rests, not wholly, but essentially, upon the ultimate ideas about human life, false ideas about God and the world, about what we ought to be and can be, which flock in the minds of the ordinary person, and upon which the course of human affairs naturally rests. Though they are largely unnatural, as the unnoticed motions of the Earth condition every movement on the Earth, so these ideas frame the particular attitudes and actions of a realm dead in trespasses and sins. As children of light, given by grace the life from above by the birth from above, we are called to use our intellects in submission to God, trusting Him to work with us here, as we do in the use of every one of our natural powers for His glory. We are called to think for God. The active submission of our intellect, to be empowered by His Spirit to achieve for Him what it cannot achieve on its own, is a necessary part of the full stewardship of love of God, of occupying” for Him until He comes. In all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27), the word mind (διανοια dee-án-oy-ah), the phrase all of the mind,” is used to indicate how we are to love God: with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (“strength” omitted in Matthew).

Called to Be Christian Thinkers

You who today commence” the life beyond your days of special training face this challenge to love God with your minds, as well as your hearts, souls and bodies. How are you to fulfill this commandment? How else than by accepting the work of thought as the place where you will actually involve yourselves, as thinkers, as intellectuals: Yes, as intellectuals, Christian intellectuals, you engage yourselves, by faith, with the Holy Spirit, to throw back the framework of Satan’s lies and show forth the life which is the light of men in all of its cosmic, historical, and eternally redemptive dimensions.

You are called today to stand by Paul the Apostle, with weapons not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of strongholds, destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought (νόημχ) captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:4 – 5). The context of this passage locates this work to be done in the very concrete context where ideas are functioning as the basis of evil behavior. And let me say that this is always the case. Evil has roots in will and feeling, but its primary defense is always in ideas, in mis-faiths, in what the prophet Isaiah calls the refuge of lies.” It is in ideas and beliefs that man hides by justifying his actions and his feelings. Hides from himself as much as others (the Prodigal came to himself” in Luke 15:17). Lies are a refuge of darkness which men love because their deeds are evil, as Jesus said.

Yes, it is still today true, as long ago, that God will occasionally so direct our minds that it will seem all Him and none of us. Jesus said to his first followers: Settle it therefore in your hearts not to meditate before what ye shall answer: for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist” (Luke 21:14 – 15). But as John R. Rice used to say, If you onlytrust in God to fill your mouth, He’ll fill it alright – with hot air.” The inspiration of God usually comes as we do our best to love Him with all our minds by using all our minds in His service. In Take My Life and Let It Be (1874), Francis RidleyHavergal sang:

Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as Thou dost choose.

Thus we worship and serve God in spirit and in truth, as the spirit enables the intellect to fulfill its function by grace as a part of Creation.

How To Protect the Spiritual Life from the Intellect

And how then is the spiritual life to be protected from the life of the intellect? In exactly the same way as the use of all our natural abilities in the created realm. We have to do whatever we do from within a framework of discipleship that will constantly hold us in clear dependence upon the interaction of the Holy Spirit with our souls, refusing to depend upon our natural ability and natural relations to the world, social as well as physical, apart from God.” The intellectual is, in this regard, in no greater danger than the preacher or the Christian teacher or administrator. We have recently seen, in many quarters, spectacular failures on the part of outstanding preachers, teachers and communicators.” In every case, the failure is traceable to attitudes and behaviors which would have pretty surely been eliminated by measures that are a matter of course for one who is really prepared to follow Jesus in his overall style of life, or to follow Paul, who could say to the Corinthians: Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1).

So as you answer this call to think for God, to search out truth and reality, to overturn falsehood and show it up as the cheat and evasion, the servant of Satan, that it is, you have only to be faithful to the requirement which every disciple in every vocation must meet; and then you will be perfectly safe; and the intellect will not overbalance the spiritual in your life. This is the requirement of a plan of specific activities for growth in Christlikeness. That is what the disciplines for the spiritual life are all about. They are activities in which we voluntarily act to meet the reality of God’s Kingdom at points where we are especially needy. They are in some form the only way in which the ministry of Christ today can fulfill the last clause of the Great Commission in Matthew 28: Teach the disciples of all nations to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Because we have, reacting against their abuse, failed to foster these disciplines within the framework of Salvation by Grace through faith, our bodies of professing Christians are now devastated by anti-nomianism — including most of the Evangelical churches. They have not been shown how to walk after Christ. I know of no church with a plan to fulfill the last clause of the Great Commission. It is a great omission.

In my book I discuss the spiritual disciplines under two headings:


This is not the occasion to go into these in detail. But it is the occasion to tell you that only if you seriously, purposively, tenaciously engage in a wide range of these or similar activities, will you be able to balance any of your interests and activities, including the intellectual, with the spiritual life. It is the occasion to ask you what your plan is for Christlikeness. It is the place to ask you to look at how Christ spent His time in the overall pattern of His life, and to suggest that our call is to trust Him enough to follow Him in His overall way of life. And then our intellectual life, and all other aspects of our life, will be in balance with the spiritual.

Republished with permission from dwillard.org.

The new” book Dr. Willard is referencing is The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).

Text First Published April 1989