Playing Games with God
Chapter 6

The Intellectual Game

by Robert M. Smith

Living Water at the Oasis
Living Water at the Oasis

Playing Games with God
Chapter 6
The Intellectual Game
by Robert M. Smith

One of the fondest memories that flood my mind, as I reflect on my first few elementary school years in small-town Canada, is that of going to the public library. As I learned to read in those early years I was very much like an eager young explorer scooping up volume after volume of fascinating subjects; rummaging and scavenging through these books picking up every scrap of new information I could find. There was a time when an "old" book – its hard cover a little frayed, its pages a little tanned and the whole thing brittle; groaning and creaking as it was pried open, exposing the wealth within – had more of an attraction to me than an excursion through the woods or a trip to a favourite fishing hole. I had realized at a very young age that, through the use of books, the entire world was available to me and that intellectual knowledge was power. Certainly the school systems that we, North Americans, revere emphasize and instill this belief in students, teachers and parents. A good education, particularly a good advanced education, appears to be the number one goal of most well-adjusted and pensive youths in this hemisphere. And when one stops to consider the potential good that a higher education can provide a young person, as well as the good to the communities and countries within which he/she lives, one must truly applaud and support any dedication toward that end. As a society and as contributing members of that society, a responsible use of the freedoms and resources available is to be expected from any rational individual who exercises even a modicum of foresight. The needs of this global village are numerous and serve it we must, with as much aplomb and vigor as possible. That is indeed part of the Divine charge that we had been given from the very beginning (Gen 1:28-30; 2:15; 3:23).

So, in keeping with what we had learned, when our children were small, my wife and I would purchase games that challenged them mentally. We still have a few of those wonderful games in our basement, though they have become old and dusty from lack of use now that the children have grown and are on their own. "Yahtze" and "MatheMix" as well as "Trivial Pursuit", "Mastermind" and "Bible Pursuit" were demanding while also easy to play ... and I believe that those two aspects are the main ingredients to the most successful games on the market. But though stimulating and certainly quite useful as "mental exercise", these games did not and do not make geniuses out of ordinary citizens. They encouraged discipline of thought and character; they might have even fueled a data-bank or two from time to time; but transformation of this kind was and is beyond their capacity.

Although I can extol the benefits of games and systems that pique our intellectual development there comes a time when intellectual endeavors are limited. And that time comes when a higher level of existence is present in the human condition. How definitive is this? Let Oswald Chambers reveal that to you: "Our true life is not intellect or morality or bodily eating or drinking; our true life is our relationship to Jesus Christ. If once we recognize that and take care to be identified with Him in the crises of life, God will look after all the rest. If we try to draw our inspiration from elsewhere we will die in the attempt."[1]

I learned this lesson the hard way many years ago when, as a young man of 26 years and fresh out of Bible School, I was the spiritual director in a northern Ontario Christian camp. During my second stint of teaching at Northland Bible Camp in the summer of 1976 word got out that I was quite effective and intriguing as a young preacher. So a small, local chapel in Matheson decided to enlist my services for one Sunday evening meeting. The camp used one of the school buses at its disposal to truck all of the boys and their counselors to this little chapel along with me. The little building was filled to near-capacity. But there was one major problem brewing long before that meeting started: me! You see, in order to get ready for this speaking engagement I felt, erroneously as it turned out, that I would have to deliver a very sharp, intelligent, challenging and inspiring message. As one who already knew quite a bit about nature and even cosmology, I decided to plug some impressive statistics and observations into this sermon; if there was going to be a single word used to describe it, I determined that that word was going to be "intellectual". I knew that I had the "smarts" and the experience as a preacher – even at that point in time – to accomplish this task. I had not, however, taken into account what God wanted. He wasn't looking for a sermon that brought glory to me for the sharp mind and the dedication that I possessed; He wasn't looking for those in attendance to respond in admiration over this new, young preacher; He did not desire to have my ego stroked by any congregation. None of this had occurred to me ... but it was about to do so in due time.

After some singing and a few announcements I was introduced to the congregation. I had not sought the Lord's direction or His assistance in delivering this message ... I figured that I could "take it from here"! As usual, I studied well and I had brief notes to guide me through the sermon. I also had enough confidence to "sink a ship" – as they say; it was, however, confidence in the wrong thing ... or certainly in the wrong person. God, on the other hand, was going to give me one of those lessons of a lifetime. And He was gracious enough to implement it on a relatively small stage instead of a big one.

I took the platform and started with a couple of opening remarks and when I looked down at my notes, though I knew most of them by heart, I could not read a single word! I was certain that I had written these things in English but they suddenly looked more like Greek to me! The shock rendered me helpless and dumbfounded in an instant. I tried to continue with a couple of comments but it did not take long before I finally relented. Begging the pardon of the congregation, I handed the meeting back to a surprised and equally confused chairman who conducted an impromptu hymn sing. The ride back to the camp was a most uncomfortable one but that discomfort was a blessing to me. God was in the process of reshaping my perspectives and He now had my undivided attention. It was time to receive instruction from the Lord about the meaning of preaching and Who was supposed to be in control of it. C.S. Lewis described that moment so well for me and all who feel the humanistic tug toward intellectual pursuits without God's prior endorsement should appreciate this insight as well: "As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge – our knowing – more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar's life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived."[2]

Though the vast majority of Christians in North America suffer through the self-administered affliction of spiritual mediocrity, there are some who dedicate themselves to becoming – in the jargon of the military – the best that they can be. I did not append that last statement with "for the Lord" because, although that is regularly used as the rationale behind theological educations and endeavors, there is often another. The esteem and self-satisfaction of intellectual attainment rides beneath the placid surface of "serving the Lord" like an undertow, ready and able to drag even the best of spiritual swimmers out to their demise, let alone some of the younger, impressionable saints who fancy themselves as the next Ravi Zacharias or Francis Schaeffer. I know of a young man who seeks after huge, indecipherable words to brandish before saint and sinner alike. Clarity and comprehension are evidently not the goals of his obsession; but I cannot mention him without mentioning myself as a guilty party in this, with my writing as my vehicle. It is always perilous when the beauty of words and the elegance of thought take precedence over the truth of God and even God, Himself. To individuals like us there is always the deep and dangerous desire of being classified among the elite thinkers of our day ... like the notoriety that accompanies a trophy or a championship, intellectualism reinforces personal pride. The Pharisees once epitomized this same longing. Thus this attitude must be fought all the way to the grave for God, according to His Word, does not require intellectuals (1 Cor 1:18-31) and we had better get that through our thick, evangelical skulls before we become utterly useless to Him.

Of all the warnings in the Bible none are more personal and none are more serious than those aimed at our penchant for knowledge. Although there are many references throughout the New Testament regarding the spiritual minefield that special knowledge can become Paul's "pastoral epistles" are, perhaps, the best at covering the whole gamut of the problem. As he is nearing the end of his life on earth Paul was anxious to impart some spiritual guidance to two of his favourite young students: Timothy and Titus. And in the midst of the spiritual wisdom that he passes along to these young men, is some potent language about the trouble that an undue focus on knowledge can become within the church. These young men were going to be a significant part of the next generation of leaders in the church so Paul felt it imperative to write down a few things that they ought to keep their eyes on. Within only a few pages of your New Testament there are a dozen cautions, each with their own particular slant on the affliction. Listing them with an accompanying paraphrase should certainly be helpful in detecting one of Paul's major concerns:

  • 1 Tim 1:6-7 – by straying from the instruction of the New Testament some have become fruitless; some men wanted to be considered "teachers of the Law" but understood nothing
  • 1 Tim 4:1-3 – the influence of deceitful spirits and the doctrines of demons ... hypocrisy of liars ... seared consciences ... forbidding marriage ... promoting abstinence ... all in the "later times"
  • 1 Tim 4:7 – have nothing to do with worldly fables
  • 1 Tim 6:3-5 – advocates of different doctrine – conceited, understands nothing, interested only in controversy and disputes over words which cause strife and evil suspicions. Those trying to use godliness as a means of gain.
  • 1 Tim 6:20-21 – avoid worldly and empty chatter; avoid arguments over what is falsely called "knowledge"
  • 2 Tim 2:14-18 – don't wrangle over words – it's useless and leads to ruin; handle the word of truth accurately; avoid worldly and empty chatter – leads to ungodliness;
  • 2 Tim 2:23 – refuse foolish and ignorant speculations – they produce quarrels
  • 2 Tim 3:5-7 – a form of godliness but no power – avoid such persons; they are always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth
  • 2 Tim 4:3-4 – there will come a time when some will not endure sound doctrine; they will seek and accumulate teachers who agree with their own desires; will turn from truth and turn to myths
  • Titus 1:10-11 – rebellious men and empty talkers and deceivers – of the circumcision party; teaching for sordid gain
  • Titus 1:14-16 – teaching Jewish myths and commandments of men; nothing is pure – their minds and consciences are defiled; their deeds show that they are worthless
  • Titus 3:9-11 – avoid controversies, genealogies, strife and disputes about the Law; reject a factious man – he's perverted and self-condemned

There are quite a few "threads" of thought that run through those references and we shall address some of them but I would like to point out the very heart of the issue before we go any further. There is always one central portion of Scripture for each and every issue raised by Scripture and herein is no exception. 2 Timothy 3:7 is the key to understanding an intellectual dilemma that can cripple a church gathering. As Christians, our purpose in coming together – besides the commandment to love one another and besides the fellowshipping and worshipping and praying – is to come to a "knowledge of the truth". For more augmentation of this thought simply turn to the passage regarding the purpose of the church and church leadership – Ephesians 4:11-16. Christ-like maturity is the fulfillment of a knowledge of the truth. And Jesus pointed out other aspects of this during His prayer to God the Father on the night He was betrayed: "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth." (Jn 17:17 NASB). Believers are set apart [that is what "sanctified" means] from all other people on earth because of, not only their adherence to but, their complete immersion in the truth of God. The essence of His prayer is that God the Father will do the sanctifying, not us ... and that the way He shall do it is through His "word". We realize that Jesus is known as "the Word" and that we are indeed set apart from this world by faith in the salvation He provides. But the context indicates that the Scriptures are intended here. Just three verses prior – verse 14 – Jesus draws this distinction when stating "I have given them Your word" (Jn 17:14 NASB). In Luke's gospel we have it amplified all the more: "Now He said to them, 'These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'" (Lk 24:44-47 NASB).

The primacy of the Bible in the sanctification of the believer is a Divine appointment that is not to be tampered with. Toying with the Scriptures follows a pattern established by the devil in Genesis 3:1 ["Indeed, has God said?"] and therefore reaps the condemnation seen above. Elsewhere the Apostle Paul, in a much neglected verse that was originally intended to rectify the vast array of inadequacies and iniquities rampant in the Corinthian church, complements the words of our Lord Jesus by writing this: "... in us [Paul and Apollos] you may learn not to exceed [or "go beyond" in other versions] what is written," (1 Cor 4:6 NASB). Interference and corruption are the danger zones encroached by intellectualism and God does not take such things lightly. For this reason faith far exceeds mental proficiency on God's list of priorities: "Pascal was perhaps the most learned man of his time. Yet he put aside learning as a cul-de-sac and turned to faith. I was thinking, as I prepared these notes, that in old age faith seems to be the most marvelous possession anyone can have. People think of faith as being something that you don't really believe, a device in helping you believe simply it. Of course that is quite wrong. As Pascal says, faith is a gift of God. It is different from the proof of it. ... He says of it, too, that it is the heart which is aware of God, and not reason. That is what faith is: God perceived intuitively by the heart, not by reason."[3]

Human reason leads one toward speculations and "rabbit trails" that in turn lead nowhere. A conversation can surely sound "deep" and fascinating but what does it profit a man to gain the whole philosophical world and yet lose his own soul? Dissection, under laboratory conditions, has its place but reality and life are always found outside the lab, not in it. It is most unfortunate, however, that many Christians are enamored with the lab.

My wife and I took a little excursion into the United States in November 2004. I had not been to the USA very often in my lifetime but since Deb had just recently retired at that time and since I had just finished a speaking engagement in Toronto, we had both opportunity and incentive. With the sudden proximity of the border and the constant desire for warm weather we headed south and found North Carolina. After playing a bit of golf and doing a lot of sight-seeing that week, we wound our way back to Canada. Sunday found us coming through Pennsylvania and we wanted to find a church to attend. I do not recall the exact location but we spotted a rural church building. It was a Baptist church that served the entire area for it had two Sunday morning services with a combined attendance of several hundred. We arrived in time for the second service and were about to be treated to a most sublime lesson.

Prior to the pastor's message that morning we were introduced to a group of young adults that were visiting also. They had come from some Christian establishment in the mid-west in order to draw attention to their need for ongoing support and to thank the good people of Pennsylvania for their fellowship of the past. This was an extremely unique organization and they performed an incredibly valuable service: they assisted mentally-handicapped youths and young adults, some of whom were unmanageable in their own homes. The staff taught them various skills and gave them an education ... they also directed these young people toward Christ.

As the meeting progressed a young gal took the stage and told her story. As articulate as any preacher I had heard before, this young woman with "downs syndrome" related how Christ had entered her life and how she longed to serve Him now. Moments later she was singing for us like an angel, summing up, in tears, her love for Him. My wife and I went on our way a while later refreshed and rejoicing that we been counted among those in attendance that day.

What does all this mean? For a start it surely means that mental acuity – or a lack thereof – is of no concern to God; that the heart of this young woman was and is infinitely more important, more receptive, more intuitive, more insightful and more inclined towards the things of God than many of today's most lauded theologians. But till we've comprehended that this spiritual simplicity is what God is truly after, we shall always stumble over this observation. Oswald Chambers perceives it thus: "The insight that relates us to God arises from purity of heart, not from clearness of intellect. All the education under heaven will never give a man insight into Jesus Christ's teaching, only one thing will, and that is a pure heart, i.e., intentions that go along the right line. Education and scholarship may enable a man to put things well, but they will never give him insight. Insight only comes from a pure-heartedness in working out the will of God. ...You cannot teach another what is the will of God. A knowledge of the will of God comes only by insight into God through acting on the right intention."[4]

The second thing that should be deduced from our ruminations thus far is that intellectual elitism involves robbery on many levels. We have Scripture warning us about those who, through the appearance of intellectual superiority, would utilize such to their own financial advantage. The Bible also testifies to the spiritual bankruptcy of some that I would call Christian intellectual extremism: where the wrangling over words and thoughts lead only to controversy, division, animosity and error; the intellectual actually robbing himself in the process. Remember that the "factious man" is a self-condemned man who cannot assist anyone spiritually – no, not even himself. And finally, a focus upon our own intellectualism can rob us of the beauty found in others and in God: narcissistic and myopic to a fault; under the guise of academic amplification, it remains gluttonous; seeing truth in Scripture reduced to a mere debating point; God in life, inaccessible and eventually unnecessary. To grasp this fully we, once again, turn to the writings of Oswald Chambers: "The man who makes the head the centre becomes an intellectual being, he does not estimate things at all as the Bible does. Sin is a mere defect to him, something to be overlooked and grown out of, and the one thing he despises is enthusiasm. Take the Apostle Paul, or any of the New Testament saints, the characteristic of their life is enthusiasm; the heart is first, not second. This is the antipodes of modern intellectual life. Mere intellectuality leads to bloodlessness and passionlessness, to stoicism and unreality. The more merely intellectual a person becomes the more hopelessly useless he is, until he degenerates into a mere criticizing faculty, passing the strangest and wildest verdicts on life, on the Bible, and on our Lord."[5]

So completely like the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, intellectualism tempts and then ruins in acquisition. It cannot fulfill its promises and it will eventually leave the intellectual, at the end of his or her days, empty. It was never meant to be an attribute unto itself. It was and is always to be an instrument in the hands of God but, like the lust for power, once man gets his own hands on it – whether Christian or non Christian matters not – he tends to personalize it and make it his own. Indeed, it is a form of power over other men and it can be used ruthlessly. It can also be used selfishly: thought of as a blessing on the heels of Divine favour; contrary to the phrase of an age-old hymn ["Jesus loves even me"] it can cause us to feel that "Jesus loves especially me"! If it reaches this point it has been reduced to an absurdity, worthy of disdain and denouncement.

The best antidote for this dilemma? Equal portions of humility and reality. And where might we find this indispensable instruction? In the very life that Christ led upon this earth as God incarnate. Our mandate as the church of God upon earth is to become Christ-like. Passages like Ephesians 4:11-15 and Colossians 3:1-4 tell us outright that Christ is our goal, life and example as well as our Saviour and Lord:

"And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to building up the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ" (Eph 4:11-15 NASB)

"Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory." (Col 3:1-4 NASB)

If ours is a responsibility of "growing up" to become, in essence, miniature replicas of our Lord and Saviour we must, of necessity, spend as much time as possible in His presence. The gospel narratives are the best places to start but we must be sure to pursue "the knowledge of the Son of God" through all of the New Testament writings. And this, it must be noted, is a spiritual exercise not an academic one. The "knowledge" referenced here is experiential, not intellectual.

In closing a simple and yet oft-overlooked observation must be made with unabashed reliability and absolute scriptural authority: Christianity, theology, faith, grace and God are not now – nor shall they ever be – intellectual points of contention. The world of intellectuals may argue to its heart's delight but nothing in this earthly realm shall ever touch transcendence for, as Tozer indicates, "Knowledge by acquaintance is always better than mere knowledge by description, and the first does not presuppose the second nor require it."[6]

[1] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 29

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.., New York, 2001, Page 57

[3] Malcolm Muggeridge, The end of Christendom, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1980, Page 6

[4] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 697

[5] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 168

[6] "A. W. Tozer, The Divine Conquest, Fleming H. Revell Co, Old Tappan, 1950, Page 67

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