Intuition, Piety, & Wisdom

This NY Times article tells the story of a young couple who wrote a book about the biblical mandate for natural family planning.  They subsequently had four children, moved from Wisconsin to Nashville, repudiated their views on birth control, divorced, and now share custody of their children.

It’s a sad story when one considers their disappointment, disillusionment, hurt, frustration, and broken dreams.  There are also four children growing up with divorced parents.

There’s much here to consider, but one aspect of the article caught my attention because of my context for work and ministry over the last 16 years.  Since a year after graduating college, I’ve been involved in ministry among college students or have taught undergraduates.

In my view, one of the deleterious aspects of evangelical piety is the location of divine authority in an individual’s intuitions.  This can become disastrous when it is combined with youthful energy, earnest devotion to God, the youthful tendency to absolutize isolated truths, and the division of church families along age-demographic lines.

This final factor has cut off young people from God’s appointed sources of wisdom—old people.

This disastrous combination, which appears quite often among college students, was a key component in this couple’s narrative.  According to the article,

The couple left Wisconsin for Nashville in 2007, after Ms. Patchin had what she called an “intuition.” Every time the song “Tennessee” by Mindy Smith came on the radio, she started crying. “I said to Sam, ‘I think we need to move to Nashville.’ I wanted to be somewhere warm.”

I’ve seen this pattern for navigating life so often among college students.

About two years ago I sat down with a student who was considering a major move.  He was 19, had just been married, was finishing his second year of college, and was going to drop out and join a church-planting effort in a major university town over 1,000 miles away.  He told me that he felt that God was leading his wife and him to make this bold move.

After asking a number of questions, it became clear that the basis for this move was no more than an attachment to an ambitious and charismatic church-planter and an inner intuition that he should do it.  Without exception, the sources of wisdom in his life warned him against it.

I was relieved about a year ago to see him on campus.  He had eventually decided against the move.

But not everyone can be pulled back from the brink of folly.  Equating the voice of God with one’s intuitions cuts one off from God’s appointed sources of wisdom—our friends and family, especially older people who have seen much and have learned valuable lessons.  Their reservations can be interpreted as “the voice of doubt,” reinforcing one’s resolve to press ahead in “faith.”

I love college students and their energy and desire to swallow life whole.  But I become very skeptical when I see the combination of the energy of youth and the intuitive spirituality of evangelical piety.

In her series of blogs on Phillip Cary’s book, Good News for Anxious Christians, my friend Linda writes about this sort of spirituality here and here.

7 thoughts on “Intuition, Piety, & Wisdom

  1. jonathan mcgill

    So, when you do give advice and council to those who clearly operate from this kind of piety, how do you avoid “crushing their spirit” while still being honest and forthright with them?

    1. timgombis

      Good question! I know it’s not my job to change anyone, nor to even change their pietistic practices or pattern of behavior. I guess I’d focus just on the isolated decision that is before the person and help them walk through it wisely.

      In my experience, some people are just intuitive and operate that way. That’s fine, but if they’re headed toward a disastrous decision, then it seems to be my responsibility to raise questions and urge the person to really consider some factors that could lead to harm.

      All of this is supposing that they ask my advice!

  2. Haddon Anderson

    I find myself agreeing with this, but I’m left with a couple thoughts/questions. First of all, how do we fend off foolish intuition while also wanting to live lives that embody Christ to the world? I guess my fear is that if we suppress all forces of intuition, we may find ourselves settling for a sense of complacency or detachment from God’s grand activity. We may be quick to reason that participating in “costly” manners is overly intuitive and unnecessary.

    Perhaps an example will help what I’m trying to say. Being in Chicago, I’ve met numerous couples and/or families who have strategically moved to urban locations, most of which feature brokenness, poverty, etc. When they made the decision to move to these places, it could have been seen as foolish intuition, especially by older, concerned parents/friends. I’m thus wondering how to resolve this tension; because I definitely feel like naive intuition can control us. It’s certainly controlled me at times, being a young 23-year old who really doesn’t know much! But I’m also trying to discern how forms of “positive” intuition can coincide with God’s overarching activity. Maybe that question can’t be answered, but this post is making me consider it.

    Once again, I definitely hear you when it comes to intuition that is irrational or perhaps premature, from a “I’m gonna change the world” mindset. But what would it look like for intuition to construct itself in a healthy way?

    1. timgombis

      Good questions, Haddon.

      First, I’d say that the pursuit ought to be one of living wisely in this world, making decisions that are measured, taking everything into account, and taking into account God’s priorities and the wisdom of friends and elders. Our intuitions ought to be far down the list and held with suspicion. After all, our hearts are oriented in all kinds of nutty directions and can’t always be trusted. Our intuitions can lead us into real trouble. In fact, you might say that intuitioni ought to ALWAYS be held with suspicion until you grow older and learn the skills of wise decision-making. In time, wisdom will shape intuitions — hopefully!

      We should not set intuition over-against complacency. We should set intuitioni over-against biblical modes of living, thinking, and decision-making.

      With the illustration you bring up, it’s hard to make judgments about others, but these kinds of actions must be undertaken with extreme care. I’d like to drop in and see where these people are in 5 or 10 years. Honestly, such actions are “bold” and “courageous,” but are they really sustainable over the long-term? Have people who are zealous really counted the cost? I’ve met far too many who haven’t and the results aren’t good. When we began our urban church plant, our urban partners told us NOT to move into the city. We were shocked by their response to our questions, but it was the way of wisdom.

      At the same time, perhaps such moves are wise ones–seriously shaped by the gospel. But just to say that when we have lots of people close to us giving us advice and counsel that all runs in one direction, that should really give us pause. None of these are the FINAL factors, but I would go against them only after really really really thinking through things…

      1. Haddon Anderson

        Very helpful. This is a great reminder, especially at my age, to heed the advice of those who are older, wiser, and simply possess more life experience. It also helps shape decision making and how “bold” and “courageous” moves shouldn’t be quick, rash decisions based on intuition, but thoughtful, measured choices that factor in all implications. Thanks for sharing!

  3. athanasius96

    Tim, my previous career was college ministry as well, so much of this resonates with my experience.

    First, we live in such an independent culture that it is hard for people to hear the importance of making decisions in community. (I actually have a post slated for later this week that mentions this point as well.)

    Second, in approaching wrong decision making my approach always was to tell students how I have seen things go wrong. Usually, they would change their decision or engage it differently with the added knowledge. Either way it was a win-win.

  4. John Mortensen

    Right on and write on. We who teach college hear every day from students that the “Lord is leading” this way or that. It seems to me that this pious language is really a way of baptizing and blessing our own mundane decisions.

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