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

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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