Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from “Truth on Fire: Gazing at God Until your Heart Sings,” by Adam Ramsey (The Good Book Company, 2021).
“The purpose of theology is doxology— we study in order to praise.” (J.I Packer)
For many of us, there is a frustrating disconnect between our thinking about God and our experience of God. A gap between the life of the mind and the life of the heart. Maybe you can relate?
One of the great tragedies of this present generation of Christians has been the divorce between theological and experiential Christianity. On one side, you tend to have churches committed to theological accuracy, knowing the Word of God, and holding a high view of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This team is generally known for expository preaching, systematic theology, and dead white guys who’ve written lots of books. We’ll call this team “The Thinkers.”
On the other side tend to be churches committed to cultivating an experience of God, knowing the Holy Spirit in personal communion, and engaging the emotions through heartfelt corporate worship experiences. This team reveres passion, cultural relevance, and anything that passes the pragmatic test of, “it works.” We’ll call this team “The Feelers.” The Thinkers often view The Feelers as thoughtless, and The Feelers disregard The Thinkers as lifeless.
And more often than not, both are completely right.
Truth on Fire
What if we didn’t have to choose between an intelligent faith and a passionate one? After all, a sharp mind with a cold heart is just as big of a fail as a heart radically on fire about nonsense. The life of the mind and the life of the heart shouldn’t really need to be reconciled, because they were always meant to be friends. God intends for us to pursue a Christianity that is radically committed to theological clarity in a way that does not diminish the life of the heart but actually intensifies it.
After all, didn’t Jesus say that the most important command in the entire universe was that we cultivate a love for God that includes all our hearts and all our mind (Mark 12:28–30)? So why is it that so often we settle for just one or the other? Here’s why: we are afraid.
Some of us are afraid of a theologically robust Christianity that engages only our minds because we’ve experienced the cold lovelessness of those who prefer arguing over adoring and debating over delighting. We naturally shrink back from those who weaponize theology. Christians who can articulate the doctrines of grace but lack graciousness—who understand the nuances of justification but have lives absent of joy—are, at best, confusing. At worst, they can cause great damage to their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Others of us are afraid of an experiential Christianity that engages only the emotions because we’ve seen the damage that takes place when spiritual experience is separated from biblical literacy. We’re tired of hyped-up, talk-show Christianity that feels about as authentic as a laugh-track on a ’90s sitcom. We’ve seen the impotency of worshiping worship and having faith in faith. We want the truth, the real thing, the reality of God, as he has revealed himself through his Word.
It’s time to leave our fears behind by seeing how we can have both—rather than having to choose between—the robust and the experiential. If right thinking is the hearth, then right experience is the flame. We need both. Without the hearth, our spiritual experiences can run wild, leaving many burn victims in their wake. Without the flame, our magnificent theology is cheapened into a nice decoration, sitting pointlessly and lifelessly in the corner of our lives. So we cannot settle for one without the other. The 13th-century preacher Anthony of Padua, who was entrusted with the theological instruction of the followers of Francis of Assisi, began each of his classes with the phrase, “Of what value is learning, that does not turn to love?” Our goal must always be both.
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose
In one of the famous scenes of the popular TV show Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor rallies his high school football team with what becomes the iconic motto of the show: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” Doesn’t this describe the kind of Christianity that deep down we all long for? Isn’t this both/and of head and heart exactly what Paul prays for when he writes from a prison cell, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9)? Doesn’t Peter say the same thing? “Finally, all of you, have . . . a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet. 3:8). If this is normal Christianity, why should we settle for anything less? Here’s some good news: we don’t have to choose between theological precision and white-hot passion. God wants us to reject both dead orthodoxy as well as passionate ignorance.
Good theology matters, but it’s not our final destination. It exists to move us into a deeper experience of the one for whom we have been created. It is the rocket fuel of our worship.
What if we Christians of the 21st century were known for a discipleship to Jesus that was as intelligent as it was passionate? What if deep thoughts about God and deep experiences of God became the norm for our worship in every area of our lives? Imagine if our churches were known for both a high view of the Holy Scriptures as well as a high view of the Holy Spirit (who, you know, wrote them). More than ever before, we need what the author Richard Lovelace called, “Spirit-empowered biblical thinking.” The kind of Christianity that refuses to settle for either lifeless orthodoxy or lively foolishness.
Sound doctrine matters. And so does real communion. Jesus calls us to follow him into right thinking about him—not as an end in itself—but as the means through which we may experience him truly and enjoy him deeply, every day of our lives.
By Adam Ramsey