Levels of Understanding

11/23/13, by Clement Pulaski

Being a Christian is not a simple matter of assenting to a set of ideas. Of course the Christian faith has its dogmas that all believers must affirm, but as one's spiritual life develops, one gains an ever deeper understanding of these ideas. One reaches the point where the blessings of God are not simply known intellectually, but felt emotionally. I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians refer to this process as "bringing the mind into the heart". The great colonial era preacher Jonathan Edwards explained this concept in the following words:

There is a twofold understanding or knowledge of good that God has made the mind of man capable of. The first, that which is merely speculative and notional; as when a person only speculatively judges that any thing is, which, by the agreement of mankind, is called good or excellent, viz., that which is most to general advantage, and between which and a reward there is a suitableness, and the like. And the other is, that which consists in the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of a thing; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it. In the former is exercised merely the speculative faculty, or the understanding, strictly so called, or as spoken of in distinction from the will or disposition of the soul. In the latter, the will, or inclination, or heart, are mainly concerned.

Thus there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative rational judging any thing to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concerned in it; but the heart is concerned in the latter. When the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension. It is implied in a person's being heartily sensible of the loveliness of a thing, that the idea of it is sweet and pleasant to his soul; which is a far different thing from having a rational opinion that it is excellent.

Developing this spiritual sensitivity is of great advantage, especially when it comes to the ongoing battle against sinful thoughts and actions. Knowing that sin is bad for you is indeed helpful, but it is when one begins to feel the evil of sin in one's heart that a true hatred of sin can be gained. The Bible commands us "Ye that love the Lord, hate evil" (Psalm 97:10), but hate cannot be felt in the mind, only in the heart.

In my own life there have been moments when this deeper level of understanding has inflamed the hatred of sin. Ever since becoming a Christian I have acknowledged the fact that God is my creator, but recently I experienced a deeper understanding of this fact. God created my body, and He created it to be used in accordance with his law. When I allow sloth, lust or gluttony to thrive in my body, I insult God and abuse his creation. For a blessed moment I was filled with revulsion at the sins of the flesh I had enjoyed. God's creation of and design for my body was known in my heart, and known in such a way that my mind could not consider an improper use of my body, for to do so would have been too painful. The moment regrettably passed, and since then there have been many occasions when, filled with sin, my heart has not been sensitive to the evil of my thoughts. That is not at all to say, however, that the moment has been unprofitable for me. Very often I think of it, and very often it inspires me to pursue better behavior.

The great English theologian Julian of Norwich wrote that "sin is in truth viler and more painful than hell". This brief statement captures the essence of the Christian life. This understanding, or rather this feeling in the heart that sin is worse than hell, is what allowed the martyrs to gladly undergo cruel torture rather than blaspheme their Lord. In our own daily lives we must cultivate this same sensitivity to sin by drawing our mind into our heart.

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