I'm convinced that every Christian should be a thinker. I don’t mean that every Christian should necessarily read a Systematic Theology (though that would be good!). But I do mean that if we are serious about following Christ, we must also learn to think deeply about his teachings. Consider the first and greatest commandment. Jesus says that we must love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind” (Matt. 22:37). But we can’t love God with all of our minds, if we don’t use the part of our minds that think. Paul gives us directives for how to think in a way that honors God in Philippians 4:8. And in 2 Timothy 2:7 he exhorts, "think about what I say, and the Lord will give you understanding." Add to that the dozens of passages in the Psalms which speak about “meditation.” Clearly, the Scriptures commend serious thought.
Unfortunately, we do not live in an age of thinkers. We live in an age of watchers and listeners, where people get their opinions and ideas ready-made and prepackaged from the mass media. We just absorb it, without reflection on what we put in our heads. We live in an era where people are, in the words of author Neil Postman, “amusing themselves to death.” Radio, television, and Internet dominate our culture. Books do not, and consequently, deep thinking doesn’t either. Even most Christians who do read settle for Christian novels or popular psychology with Christian labels. Believers used to read theology, sermons, and the great Puritan fathers. That day is pretty much over.
That makes it more than difficult to be a good Christian. We are so influenced by our culture, that we barely realize what we have lost. Our thinking is so shallow and superficial that when we get hit with a lengthy discourse on some abstract concept like substitution or propitiation, we zone out and never even scratch the surface of the deep things of God. This, consequently, makes the pastor's job harder than ever, because not only does he often preach to people who are Biblically illiterate, but he also faces the challenge of trying to keep the attention of people who are used to being entertained with an endless variety of sound, color, dialogue, humor, sensuality, and special effects (with almost nothing that demands them to think) for hours and hours every week.
So, what can you do about this? How can you improve your thinking habits? Here are several suggestions:
1. Watch less television. Next to drugs and alcohol, TV probably kills more brain-cells than anything else that we can do to our mind or body! Actually, I don’t know if that is true medically or not. But the mind is like a muscle. If it is used it gets stronger. If it is neglected, it atrophies and gets weaker. And television definitely tends to put the mind in neutral.
2. Read a great book. Now, don’t read just any book! Don’t even read a good book. Read a great book. Read something that will inform your mind and inflame your heart with truth. Read something that is at least one hundred years old. Read John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, or Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections, or John Owen’s The Glory of Christ. Take your mind deeper than it has ever gone before. You are not too old. (You might be too lazy, but you are not too old.) If you can read a newspaper, you can read a great book. You just have to get one and do it.
3. Write. Write anything. Write a letter, or an article, or a story, or a journal, or even a book. Writing, like nothing else, forces you to crystallize your thoughts into clear and coherent statements. Writing makes you think. If you will combine reading with writing, you will be well on your way to becoming a better thinker. It is easy to read without thinking. Just move your eyes across the page. But if you want to be sure that your reading is doing you good, then take notes, or write in the margins, or write a book review.
4. Talk about ideas. It has been said that small minds talk about people, medium minds talk about events, but great minds talk about ideas. When was the last time you were in a discussion that was not about someone else or current events? When was the last time you seriously discussed a verse of Scripture or one of the great doctrines of the faith?
5. Take notes during sermons. One of my aims in writing this is to help you become more adept at learning what is being taught through the preaching of the Word. A good way to do that is by taking notes. A good sermon should be easy to take notes on. Listen for the theme (prayer, faith, worship, love, etc.), and then pay attention to the sequence of thought that the preacher walks through. Listen for point number one and point number two, etc. I think you will find yourself picking up more and remembering it longer. The results could be phenomenal.
6. Translate thinking into living. This is the most important thing. You could do all of the above and just become an intellectual person with a lot of head-knowledge. That would be a tragedy. Instead, do as James exhorts and be a doer of the word and not just a hearer (or reader, or thinker) (Jas.1:22-23). You can’t do it if you haven’t thought about it. But don’t stop with thinking about it. Apply it. Living without thinking is dangerous. Thinking without living is more dangerous. So do both. Think. And live.