“When we consider the principles of right and wrong, we are often thinking in terms of tangible acts.
But one act, perhaps the most important of all,
tends to get left out of ethical considerations altogether.”
erious thinkers are always concerned about ethics. They want to figure out what principles deem an act right or wrong. This has been the case throughout the history of thought, and it is a chief evidence that human beings are made in the image of God. Whether we acknowledge God or not, we all seek to know the moral truth. People by nature try to find out God’s law, even if they openly reject the true Lawgiver.
But when we consider the principles of right and wrong, we are often thinking in terms of tangible acts. It is wrong, for instance, to steal, to murder, and to lie. Or, we may think in terms of feelings or attitudes of the heart. For instance, it is right to love and wrong to hate, right to be humble and wrong to covet.
But one act, perhaps the most important of all, tends to get left out of ethical considerations altogether. It is the act of thinking.
Thinking Isn’t Neutral
Many people see thinking as a kind of neutral non-act. They see the mind as a neutral zone of contemplation that is totally divorced from action. They are quick to recognize the morality of stealing, but the act of “thinking” itself seems rather amoral. This is a common assumption of many, if not most people today, and it is an assumption that showed up in the thought of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that we cannot know whether God exists, but regardless of this fact, we should act as though He exists. But a critical question must be dealt with here: if we are to act as though God exists, shouldn’t we think as though God exists, and therefore believe in Him? Shouldn’t “thinking” count as a kind of “act,” and therefore fall under Kant's rule? This is a logical outcome of Kant’s proposal, but Kant didn’t follow through because he didn’t view thinking as an act. Like most philosophers throughout history, he exempted the mind from the same moral demands that he placed on tangible actions. He effectively divorced the mind from the moral life. Even though Kant was deeply concerned with ethics, he didn’t believe in a morally “right” way to go about thinking.
So why didn’t Kant see thinking as an act? I think there are two possibilities. One is that it simply never occurred to him. But Kant was a truly brilliant thinker, and I think he’s sharp enough to at least have considered this as an option. The other possibility (which I think is the real reason) is that Kant, like so many other philosophers throughout history, wanted personal autonomy where it mattered most to him. To put it simply, Kant didn’t want to be told how to think; he wanted to think his own way, without an external authority placed over his mind. He wanted intellectual equality with God. He probably didn’t see it that way, but in effect, he was committing intellectual idolatry.
I’m picking on Kant here because he works as well as any example, but the history of thought is consistently fraught with the same error. More broadly speaking, we are all guilty of this. Ever since the fall of mankind, humans have been exempting their minds from moral demands. (Scripture calls it “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness,” Romans 1:18.) Christians, having been redeemed, are able to reverse this idolatry of the mind. But we still fail to do so insofar as we abdicate the biblical call to renew our minds (Romans 12:2). The point I want to emphasize here is that the mind is not just a tool for analyzing things. The mind houses the will; it houses you, your affections, your desires, your loves. And as such, the mind is a prime vessel of sin. It assists the sinner in justifying his sin, and it actively works to suppress the truth.
The Act Above All Acts
We have substantiated that thinking is indeed an act. Yet it isn't merely an act. It is arguably the most important act we perform. There are two reasons for this. First, thinking is the one constant act that underlies all other acts we perform. We perform all other acts intermittently, but our act of thinking persists without stop until we die. You’re not always eating, or sleeping, or running. But you are always thinking—even in your sleep (that’s called dreaming).
But thinking is not only the most common act. More importantly, it is the decisive act. Thinking orients us in a direction and sets us on a particular course of action. The way we think determines the way we will act. Think about it. Before we make a decision to “act,” we must first “think about it.” The way we go about thinking then determines the way we will act.
We see, then, that all “acts” stem directly from thinking. If we want to act in the right way, it is absolutely essential that we think in the right way. All of a sudden, thinking has become a moral enterprise. Before we can even consider what “acts” are right and wrong, we must answer a question that comes prior: what is the right way to think?
How Then Shall We Think?
Secular thought has given us a million accounts of what knowledge is, and how we can get it. But Scripture gives us a unique account. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). If we want knowledge, we must realize that we are not God. Unlike Kant, we must not claim that our own minds are the ultimate grounds for knowing. We must not claim with the Sophists that “man is the measure of all things.” While we can indeed know many truths with our own faculties, we do not possess the ultimate standard of truth within ourselves. The ultimate standard is God and His Word alone. Recognizing this fact, according to Proverbs 1:7, is the first step in truly getting any knowledge.
Secondly, since thinking is an act, we must do it to the glory of God. Paul writes, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). We must think in a way that gives glory to God. This is actually part of the way we fulfill the greatest commandment—loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. So what kind of thinking brings glory to God? Answer: thinking that is guided and tested by the authority of God’s spoken Word. We shouldn’t think of the Bible only as a book containing true statements. It is the very voice of God; He is speaking to us! So just as a small child in the forest must follow the footsteps of his father who knows the way, we must follow the footsteps of our Father who knows all. We are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the active renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).
Some may read this and think I am neglecting the role of “general” revelation--that is, God's revelation in nature apart from Scripture. But that is nowhere near my intention. All I mean to say is that Scripture (special revelation) must be the lens through which we view all things in nature (general revelation). Our knowledge is fallible and often tainted by sin, but God's words are not. We must test all our thoughts by the ultimate standard of His thoughts.
In our former days of bondage to sin, we were children of the devil, and thus placed ourselves at the center of all things. We were a law unto ourselves (Romans 2:14) and did not acknowledge God with our hostile minds (Romans 8:7). But God showed up with news for us and performed a radical work in our hearts. Central to that work was to show us that we are not God, but that we are utterly subject to, and dependent on, Him. Now we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), and so we are beholden to a higher standard of thought—God himself. Let us be consistent Christians in this area. Let us be Christians who live all of life—including the life of the mind—under the lordship of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Daniel Davis graduated from Wheaton College in 2014 with a B.A. in History, having minored in political science. He loves to study theology, history, philosophy, and politics, and he enjoys writing about these subjects from a biblical worldview. His work has been published by The Federalist, Townhall and Values & Capitalism, and he regularly participates in Ecclesiam's Point of Contact podcast. Daniel is an active member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.