The Sin of Intellectual Laziness


There has been no small amount of hay made over the apparent dichotomy of feeling vs. thinking. In the wider world we have Ben Shapiro telling us that the facts don’t care about your feelings. In the Christian world Alan Jacobs is something of an intellectual darling for his book How to Think. Piper even has taken us to task with his exasperated sounding title Think! And yet if we survey the world around us it seems pretty clear that the feelings don’t care about your facts.

In Which I Fashionably Arrive at the Party

I would now like to come late to this particular party with a small observation that may spur a few more on. In short I would suggest that we are reaping what we have sown. Intellectually Lazy parishioners make intellectually lazy pastors, and intellectually lazy pastors will continue to make intellectually lazy parishioners. It becomes a cycle of lowering the bar and I fear that we have gotten this particular one quite low.*

This is not to imply that all pastors are lazy. I specifically laid the charge of intellectual laziness. I realize that pastors are pulled in many directions. And with the increase of technology are made now more available than ever before. Pastors are always on call, they are considered second responders in disasters and emergencies. They have an emotionally draining job. The expectations placed on them are far too often impossibly high. They are required to paradoxically be deeply empathetic and emotionally sensitive, yet have a thick enough skin to receive the cruelest of criticism. If a pastor is striving to do these things and any innumerable other tasks put upon him he is not lazy. And yet these are merely obstacles to being intellectually rigorous. The crushing pressure comes from being looked to for the immediate response to whatever current cultural issue has reared it’s ugly head. He must be more than informed and but an instant expert, general knowledge of humanity is insufficient. His response and thinking must be sensitive, non offensive, yet somehow authoritative, culturally relevant, and not platitudinous. And the last point is the most damning. Platitudes are considered canned answers and therefore cold, unfeeling, and insensitive. God forbid that real repentance is called for unless that repentance is in line with the current cultural thinking. All of this can cow, overwhelm, distract, or beat down a faithful pastor into becoming intellectually lazy. Depending on the man this process can take time, or he may be primed fresh out of seminary. However, it is not new, the cycle of intellectual laziness has been with us for some time.

“In the Middle Ages the theologians carried the art of thinking further than any other group of men… but theology of any kind is now somewhat neglected, and the Church is not primarily concerned with teaching men to think. Unless we are a lawyer or a scientist we develop our heart and neglect our mind. Our heart is considered fully developed when our emotions are so strong that intellectual processes are for us impossible.” – John Erskine (emphasis added)

Allow me to repeat, “The Church is not primarily concerned with teaching men to think.” This is a damning statement if I ever read one. Erskine wrote this in 1943 one year after his influential essay The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. I believe he was on to something. One factor that Christians rarely consider is that truth is a person. It is not just objective, it is a person.

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 (emphasis added)

All truth comes from God. John 1 tells us that Christ is the Logos, the word, reason, plan; He gives form and meaning. He was in the beginning with God and is God. Truth is inescapable though it is everywhere denied and suppressed. That denial will end in ultimate condemnation. 

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” – Romans 1:18-25

The Simple Truths Always Matter

But all of this brings us back to platitudes. The Scriptures hold truth, lead us to truth, fill us with truth. And that truth applies to every situation in life that may arise. Scripture is sufficient for all scenarios. But it is not specific. We are required to be sanctified, and to think. A mature Christian is a thinking Christian. Wisdom can not be attained by simply cruising to a ripe old age. It requires long, hard thought and application. An intellectually lazy Christian should be considered an oxymoron. More so for an intellectually lazy pastor. And the kicker to me is this. A wise pastor knows that while his congregation may want one thing they need another. They may want him to be conversant on the current big issue, but what they need is him breathing Scripture. We may not like platitudes, but we need them. only when the simple questions are asked and answered can we move beyond. Here again, and you knew had to know it was coming, Screwtape is most illuminating.

“The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going? they will neglect the relevant questions.” – Screwtape Letter XXIV

Unfortunately the idea of, is it in accordance with general movement of our times? Exerts enormous pressure, both on parishioner and pastor. And since we have failed to read our biographies and histories, and been trained to selectively read our Bibles for supporting points as opposed to letting them read us. To teach, reprove, correct, and train us in righteousness. And this brings us back to truth, which brings us back to the necessity to be thoughtful. What I find most fascinating is that while truth is simple, and platitudes seem rote. Thinking well is both difficult and intensive. People must be trained to think. The tools are before us, but pastors must pick them up and use them, they must pass them on to their congregants. And none of this will be easy. But at the end of the day Christians are called to be wise. Wisdom is the end result of rightly applying knowledge to life. Wisdom is platitudes come alive. What seemed dull and repetitive blossoms into a flower of great beauty and value. 

Truth, thinking, wisdom. All of these are a necessary journey in sanctification. We begin with Jesus, the truth. We grow as 2 Timothy 3:16 instructs us, and we should end as Solomon wise, and perhaps a little frustrated with the foolishness of youth. But to do this is, as one of your own prophets John Stewart has whined, “That sounds like a lot of work.” And indeed it is. But Christians are called to pick up their cross and follow Christ. Nothing about a cross is easy. It even makes death out to be work. Just as Christ’s reward was on the other side of death, so is ours. When we mortify laziness, and ignorance, and pride we receive life, truth, and freedom. Above all we give glory to God. 

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” – 2 Peter 3:18

As Westminster points out, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Knowledge of a good thing increases our enjoyment of that thing. To evade truth and thinking, to run from wisdom, to be intellectually lazy is foolishness, sin and death.

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” – Hosea 4:6

Let us consider that the church has gone from being a small powerful movement to an enormous impotent one because we have failed to think. Is it possible that by expecting our pastors to present a comforting TED talk over and against a sermon that convicts, and trains us, we have been destroyed? I would propose that we humbly do the hard work of learning to think, pursue wisdom, love truth. And the work will be hard but what spurs me on are the questions of Francis Schaffer in his excellent A Christian Manifesto: “What is loyalty to Christ worth to you?” Is He worth the hard work, is he worth the scorn of a society that shames you for not falling in line? And if not the second question then, “Why are you a Christian?” If Christ is not worth labor, if He is not worth the mortification of sin then why do you profess Him? As Matt Chandler succinctly put it, “Church is a terrible hobby, you should buy a boat.” Christ is not a weekend pastime, He is savior, he is God, He unites us to Himself, and we are to conform to His image. Intellectual laziness will not do. Let us make ourselves lovers of truth, and pursue rigorous thought. Let us become wise. And may we pray for, encourage, defend, and humbly call our pastors to do the same and to become concerned with teaching men to think.

*But, you may want to point out, what about the Young Restless and Reformed movement? Wasn’t that a return to deeper doctrines, with books flowing out of Crossway like a river? And I would have to say that the early days may have been a reprieve, but unfortunately very little seems to have stuck outside of a few Calvinistic buzz words and an affinity for craft beer. I would challenge you to walk into any “reformed” non denominational church randomly and see if you can really tell a strong doctrinal difference from that and the standard Armenian SBC mega church down the street. Is the Lord’s Table fenced? Is the pulpit treated as a sacred desk where with great reverence the pastor brings to his people a message from the Lord? Are the songs of worship trinitarian, doctrinal, and instructive or happy clappy? The Young, Restless, and Reformed have become the Middle aged, Comfortable, and Compromised. 

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