Saturday, June 20, 2009

Loving God With All Our Mind

Mark 12:28-34 (sermon audio download available here)

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.



Have you ever wondered what happened to the dinosaurs? How did those giant lizards become extinct? And did the Bible ever mention anything about them? Have you ever asked these questions before? I suspect quite a number of you have.

I came to know Christ as a 15 year old student in secondary school. That’s not too long ago. As a curious new believer, I began asking how the Genesis account of creation in seven days explains those interesting dinosaurs you’d find watching Jurassic Park or National Geographic. So hoping to get some answers, one fine day I picked up the courage to ask my science teacher who is also a Christian. I asked him: “Why did God create dinosaurs and let all of them die, ah? Were the dinosaurs safe inside Noah’s ark? Did the flood drown all of them?” He gave me “one kind” of look and then asked me another question in return. He said: “Tell me. Does God answer your prayers?”

I was a bit shocked at first. “Er… Don’t blame me la… I didn’t pray for the dinosaur’s extinction ok!” Maybe he sensed that I was confused, so he went on, “Aiya… If God has answered your prayers, why do you need to ask so many things?” So if you have an experience that God is real in your heart, why bother thinking so much?

From that day on, I found out that for many Christians an intellectual understanding of what we believe and why you believe is not important as long as you have an experiential feeling in your heart! The heart is what you used in a relationship with God but the brain is what you used while studying science, computers, economics and history in school. There is a separation of the heart for spiritual stuffs and the mind for secular stuffs like dinosaurs. When that happens, no wonder our faith has so little impact on how we do our work or studies in the world. And no wonder our ‘daily activities’ outside the church has very little to do with God or the gospel.

But the Bible seems to say: “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewal of your minds”. It doesn’t say “Be transformed by the removal of your minds”! So we don’t need to remove our brains in order to be a Christian. In fact, renewing our mind with God’s truth and kingdom values is crucial to our spiritual growth. Last month, I was working in Vietnam and met an American lady on a tour bus who works for a research program, trying to find a cure for cancer. As we talked, she told me that she envies her Christian friends for their faith. She says “It’s so easy for them but it’s hard for me to believe because as a scientist, I’ve been trained to think critically and ask questions first”. So I encouraged her, “Sometimes people ask questions not because of unbelief, but because they are serious about the truth”. Then I recommended her a book by a famous Christian scientist and hope it’s helpful to her.

To a lot of people, when you wish something is true but suspect that it actually doesn’t exist you need faith. And when you know for sure that something isn’t true and you still believe in it, then you must have very great faith indeed. But biblical faith is not like that. True faith involves knowledge, agreement and trust. For example, I can examine that this is a chair, it has four legs. That’s knowledge of the facts. But knowing alone is not enough, I must agree that yes, this chair is strong enough to support my weight. But knowing and agreeing alone won’t do me any good unless I put a personal commitment to rest my weight on that chair. So faith has both objective facts as well as personal trust.

In the passage we read just now, Jesus calls us (his disciples) to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our strength, with all our soul and with all our mind. This is the great and first commandment that sums up the entire law. True Christian spirituality involves our whole being - heart, head and hand. Our feeling, thinking and doing are all involved.

If we do not love God with all our heart, what happens? Our spiritual life will be all head knowledge but there is no real passion, desire or joy in it. We merely analyze God but we don’t worship Him. And if we do not love God with all our strength, then no practical fruit comes out of our beliefs. It’s NATO “No Action Talk Only”. Next Sunday Pastor Aik Khiam will preach on the Great Commandment of Jesus in more detail so…

Today I just want to zoom in on loving God with all our mind and ask 3 questions:
- Now, what happens if we do not love the Lord our God with “all our mind”?
- What are some practical benefits of developing a Christian mind?
- If this is important and practical, what can we do as disciples of Jesus to follow after God’s thoughts? To disciple our minds to love God…

So I hope to suggest why the role of the mind is so crucial to our discipleship, how a renewed Christian mind can be intensely practical (not just theoretical) and how we can go about loving God with “all our mind” as a church.

Many of us know about Billy Graham… he’s a great evangelist who has probably preached the gospel to more people than anyone else through radio and TV broadcasts and mass evangelistic rallies. Almost 30 years ago, the Billy Graham Centre was launched with a mission to help churches to evangelize. At the dedication service, they invited a Lebanese Christian named Charles Malik to deliver a very challenging message. He said: “I must be frank with you: the greatest danger facing American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough… The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out you have actually lost the world.” In other words, he’s saying, even if the whole world become Christian in name but their thinking is still captured by worldly patterns, then it may turn out that we have actually lost the world. If he is right and I think he is about a very common neglect to care for the life of the mind not only in America but also in Malaysia, then perhaps it is appropriate for us as a church to spend a bit more time exploring how we may love God with ‘all our mind’. So that’s one reason to devote a whole sermon on this aspect of obeying the Great Commandment. Not because the other areas are not important, but because there is such widespread neglect for such a crucial need today.

So what happens if we do not love the Lord our God with “all our mind”?

Nowadays, information about anything under the sun is just a Google search away. We cannot totally isolate ourselves or our loved ones from ideas… even dangerous ideas or deceptive philosophies out there in the market.

And if we do not submit our thinking to God’s truth, then obviously our minds will be easily influenced by worldly ways of life. We may still call ourselves Christians but we absorb notions about wealth, about sex and about success from MTV, popular movies or Youtube without even knowing it. Our thinking will be shaped by the patterns of the world, all those big words like hedonism that says (Life is short. Grab all the fun you can get), or consumerism (I shop till I drop because my social status depends on what I buy) or pragmatism (Whatever. As long as it works, I don’t care how you do it), and all sorts of other ‘ism or philosophies about life.

If we do not care for our mind, we may also run around with lots of programs and activities (giving an appearance of vibrant spiritual life) but we don’t stop and reflect “Why are we doing this? Is this biblical? We may do things right but are we doing the right things?” Or we may also run the danger of emotionalism – that means, having lots of misguided passion, having lots of zeal but without wisdom. Sad but true, I’ve come across some sincere but seriously misguided people who slither on the floor like snakes, roar like lions, bark like dogs because they mistakenly believed that is what God wanted them to do. Truth without emotion produce dead orthodoxy but emotion without a true vision of the greatness of God produces a shallow frenzy. The Father in heaven looks for worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth. Passionate feelings for God rooted in sound doctrine about God will express itself in songs, shouts, tears, silent awe, confessions and obedient lives. Head and heart and hands…

Last but not least, if we do not know what we believe and why we believe, then our evangelism or our witness of the gospel will suffer. We will lack boldness because we are afraid of the questions people may ask. When I have lunch with some colleagues, we usually talk about work, the economy, Malaysian politics or family stuffs. And there’s a guy who is very shy and has no opinion when it comes to topics like these. But if the conversation suddenly turns to football, then his eyes will light up and he cannot stop talking. Why? Because he knows a lot about football and he can offer expert opinions on anything relating to football like Shebby Singh. So he’s not shy or quiet anymore. It’s the same when it comes to sharing the gospel. That’s why 1 Peter 3:15 says: “Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope you have in Christ.” This command to be ready with a reason or defence for frequently-asked questions from sceptics and seekers is not given to an elite group of scholars or intellectuals. No, it’s for the whole church. Be prepared. Be equipped with answers. Then boldness kicks in.

But if it is so important to love God with our mind, why do many Christians often downplay the role of the mind when it comes to spiritual things? When it comes to secular knowledge, we say “Ah Chai: Stop your computer games, study harder, memorize these facts and pass all your exams”. We encourage them to devote much time to read books and use their minds. But when it comes to theological knowledge, we say “Who needs theology? Aiya, don’t think so much la... Just have more faith. Read books ah? Where got time? Busy la…” This common suspicion towards the role of the mind in our spiritual life may sometimes be caused by misunderstanding certain Bible passages. For example: “What’s the use of reason since Jesus says we should have faith like a child? (Matthew 8:13) Didn’t the apostle Paul say Knowledge puffs up our pride (1 Corinthians 8:1) so we should stop pursuing knowledge?”

But actually, a childlike faith refers to a humble, dependent trust in God. It is the humility and dependent trust of a helpless child that Jesus praises. He is not encouraging childish thinking. The apostle Paul wrote, “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” (1 Corinthians 14:20) When he wrote that knowledge puffs up, he is warning us against a proud attitude that show off one’s spiritual knowledge for self-promotion instead of using it to build up each another. The real problem he’s getting at is arrogance, not knowledge in itself. So our proper response is humility and love, not ignorance. There are people who are knowledgeable and yet humble just as there are people who are proud and know a lot. But it is also possible to be arrogant and ignorant at the same time. I’m in the consulting line and sometimes people say of consultants: “Know a bit but pretend to know it all”. Gordon Fee: why must we choose between ‘fool on fire’ or a ‘scholar on ice’? Lord, help me to be a “scholar on fire”. Not everyone is called to be a scholar, but we should all be disciples of Jesus whose minds continually grow in knowledge and hearts continually burn with passion.

Q2: OK, fine but is it practical or not? This business about developing a ‘Christian mind’ - Isn’t it just theoretical, head knowledge that does not help us live properly?

When Doctor Wendy and I look at the same skin problem, we “see” radically different things. She can observe more because with years of study, her mind is filled with relevant medical concepts that enable her to look for the right things and tell me whether it’s a basal cell carcinoma or not. Whereas I can stare at the sore all day and not see what she saw. Believe me, this ability to see is something very practical. It can make a difference between life and death. Similarly, if your mind is equipped with biblical concepts like creation, sin and redemption, you are able to look at life and the world and see things that others don’t even notice. You can see beyond surface appearance in world events, culture or people and discern truth from error, right from wrong, beauty from ugliness.

Although there is some truth to the perception that scholars always argue over irrelevant issues, the best theologians actually help us to gain wisdom for life. After all, a good theory is a very practical thing. When I don’t know the way to KLCC, having a good map helps me decide whether to turn left at this junction or right at that traffic light. The map itself is not KLCC but just a theoretical model of the real thing. But if the map is accurate, it can be very useful. In the same way, an accurate mental map of reality guides our navigation through difficult decisions in the world.

Because what we believe to be true has a powerful influence over how we should live. For example, if we view human life as just a biological machine, we won’t be terribly inclined to treat it with much dignity or respect. But if we see human beings as more than biology but also a person made in the image of God with infinite worth, it compels us to treat life as sacred and other people with dignity and respect. Sound theology is practical when it connects to life and flow from the head to the heart and to the hands. True knowledge and living experience should enrich each other.

And if we are serious about our witness for the gospel in a multi religious society like Malaysia, we need to intentionally raise up a generation of confident, informed and winsome ambassadors for Christ. We can preach with all the fervor of a Billy Graham but win only a beggar here and there if we allow the intellectual atmosphere of our society to oppose the gospel by sheer logic. The strategy is not retreat and isolate ourselves in a safe little corner. But to cultivate a robust Christian worldview that understands and engages culture. To do that, we need to provide thinking tools that empower our youths and children, so they will learn how to evaluate what’s true and good on their own. My wife Grace is scheduled to deliver tomorrow. Newborn babies get a vaccination jab which contain some virus or bacteria so that their immune system can be developed. Similarly, we can boost up our spiritual immune system by being informed of what other religious beliefs are first and be equipped to evaluate them from a biblical perspective.

Today, there is an urgent and serious need for us to explore how the church as a redeemed community in the world responds to issues like racism, inter-religious harmony, economic inequality, caring for creation, the spread of infectious diseases, and ethics in medical technology. Since the gospel is public truth (not just private experiences), we have a responsibility to speak sensibly in the public square, through the media, in places where these crucial and practical issues of life are discussed and decided. We cannot address these burning issues in our Malaysian society without faithfully and diligently applying our minds to connect God’s word with God’s world.

Lastly, if the mind is crucial and practical to our spiritual life and witness, how then shall we recover and develop a Christian mind in ourselves and in others? (Q3)

Here are four simple suggestions which are by no means exhaustive:

a) Our mind needs to be fed. You are what you eat. If you eat junk food, your body will be weak or sick. You are what you read also. If you read healthy, solid books, your mind will also develop strong mental muscles or habits. There is no short cut. Let’s start small: Have we read the whole Bible at least once? LT Jeyachandran: If we don’t even know what’s inside this book, why do we believe it is God’s word?

b) Memorizing bible verses and facts alone doesn’t mean that we have developed a Christian mindset. Our minds need exercise. We need to re-imagine creatively and critically how to apply the biblical teachings of creation, sin, and redemption to life issues we face daily in the marketplace as a lawyer, artist, businessperson, teacher, healthcare workers etc. Advertisement: The church library has invested in many interesting helpful resources to equip us to do just that. Start with your own interests and passions.

c) If you are a student, do you think Christianly about the subjects you learn in school or college? I once met a student in church who was studying psychology at HELP Institute. So I encouraged her: “Wow, that’s an interesting field. There are many areas in which psychology overlap to what the Bible teaches about the soul. Some faculty members like Dr Goh Chee Leong are committed Christians”. What she told me next broke my heart: “You know what, most Christians would frown when they hear that I’m doing psychology and you are one of few people who actually encouraged to pursue it”. I know there are some theories in psychology that may be incompatible with the Christian faith. But in every discipline, including law, economics, arts and science, you’d find some theories which do not fit well with our beliefs. If we discourage people from studying and run away then who’s going to get in there and do better psychology, better economics and better science from a biblical outlook? Speak to the pastors and see how you may discern what is true, beautiful and right expressed in these disciplines of your research. They could well be your “fulltime ministry” in future.

d) Volunteer to join or lead evangelism groups like Alpha or Christianity Explored where small groups are trained in the art of giving a reason for our faith in Christ. So you learn to handle frequently asked questions from seekers with humility, confidence and knowledge. When you are stumped once, just say “I don’t know but I’d find out for you” – then go home and do your homework, ask around and get back to them. That way, all of us learn to grow in our journey of faith.

Can you imagine what the transformation of our spirituality and witness in society looks like when our minds are regularly renewed with such practices? It is a lifelong project that requires lots of energy and time, but the effort will be worth your while. And you’ll never know just when a curious young believer may approach you with questions like “Why did God create the dinosaurs?”

You know what, recently, a student in MMU asked me about the dinosaurs and how they fit in Genesis. Ask and you shall be asked in return.

Do you know how I answered him? Basically I gave him a few possible Christian answers to that question, some pros and cons in each theory depending on how you look at the fossils and how you understand the book of Genesis. But in the end, the Bible is not meant to be a biological textbook to tell us everything about dinosaurs. Genesis tells us who created the universe and why everything is created, but its main purpose is not to tell us specifically how it all came about. Then one female student chipped in: “If God didn’t create dinosaurs, we won’t have any petroleum today! Our cars depend on fossil fuel ma...” And I thought “Ya hor… Have you ever thought of becoming a theologian?”

The point is this: Loving God with “all our mind” does not mean that we can understand absolutely everything about God and His ways. Because God is God, and we are finite creatures, there will always be mystery. And some of our questions will only be answered when we meet God one day. That should not be an excuse for us to be lazy in our thinking, but it is a needed reminder that there is a limit to our ability to reason and sometimes, all we can do is save up our questions for heaven… To ask God when we finally meet Him face to face…

Let us pray.

8 comments:

Carol said...

That was a really sensible &the most modernize sermon I ever heard & liked. You are good & well tuned for the present generation. Keep it up ok.

JLo said...

Finished downloading and enjoyed this sermon dave! helpful to remind us that understanding is not wrong and the need for humility... thanks!

Anonymous said...

DC - You communicate well, well prepared, and humble in your delivery. have considered the pastoral ministry?

The Hedonese said...

Thx for the encouragements, frens... Pls feel free to forward it if it's of any help.

Pastoral ministry... Its too high a caliing for me :D

Anonymous said...

You're already in pastoral ministry no matter what you may think or feel about it. You're doing fine!

Borneo Lady said...

May I borrow your powerpoint? Thought of using it to our little cell group.

How do i contact you?

Hedonese said...

Hi Borneo lady

i'd be happy to share the ppt slides. Just email me at hedonese at yahoo dot com

Peter said...

Role models may be in short supply. Malaysia has quite a few people walking around with doctorates of one sort or another, but are they actually contributing much to the church and the wider academic scene? [And there are a good number who having received their doctorates disappear off to greener pastures - normally to the West]. This has made many people not only skeptical of anything academic related to Christianity but skeptical as to why some Christians pursue academic study - is it just to further their own careers? So Malaysian churches need good role models. On the one hand, we will want people to understand that you don't need an academic degree in order to develop a Christian mind. On the other, we want the right people pursuing good research degrees, and who will then apply their learning in ways that serve the Malaysian church, rather than serve their own ego! A well-known Christian leader and academic in the UK said to me last week how much he respected Ng Kam Weng for remaining in Malaysia and using his gifts in the service of the Malaysian church.

in terms of the impact of Christianity on life and culture and learning, Malaysia still has a long way to go compared with other parts of the world. We need patience! But we also need Christian men and women of vision. In his chapter on Leadership in Issues Facing Christians Today, John Stott says that vision "is an act of seeing, of course, an imaginative perception of things, combining insight and foresight. But more particularly... it is compounded of a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be. It begins with indignation over the status quo and it grows into the earnest quest for an alternative." We need Malaysian Christians who are not afraid to ask "WHY?" People who will be prepared to THINK! But we also need Malaysian Christians who can see things the way George Bernard Shaw (quoted in Stott's chapter) did when he said "You see things as they are and ask 'why?' But I dream things that never were, and ask "WHY NOT?" Something along the lines of Marx - "the philosophers have only in various ways interpreted the world: the point, however, is to change it". The thinking through and application of the radical kingdom message of Jesus Christ into the whole of life is surely the greatest task to get excited about in Malaysia or anywhere.

Solutions?

Churches need to recognise the benefit of an educated ministry. By that I mean churches need people in leadership of the highest calibre. Churches need to see the need of attracting well educated people into pastoral ministry; setting some sort of academic criteria for the people they accept into pastoral ministry; working with theological colleges to develop high academic standards of theological education. This is not of course to say that the Lord cannot use men and women who have little in the way of academic qualifications. And we should add - not all those with academic qualifications are necessarily wise or holy.

Seminaries have a key role to play, and those who serve in theological education need to be making connections with other academic disciplines. Publications like Kairos do help. I wonder also if there is a place for a Kuala Lumpur version of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

For me, the key is the local congregation and the kind of pastoral ministry that is exercised there. We need pastors along the lines of John Stott - men who are committed to God's Word and who can make their scholarship accessible to ordinary church members and who can bring God's Word to address every part of life.

Discipleship of the mind is a long-term project! But that's not easy in a context where Christians are aiming at overnight discipleship success, where pastors are walking up and down the aisle of the church on a Sunday morning with hand-counters doing the numbers game. Hope this stirs some thoughts.