August 13, 2017

“How does God know our thoughts if we are just a collection of biological impulses?”

St. John’s Lutheran Church

Melrose Park, PA


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I pray these words from Psalm 19 almost every time I preach. The prayer isn’t just for me. It’s for all of us. The prayer asks God to bless the words of the sermon and the thoughts, questions, reactions, and contemplations of the whole congregation as you engage with my words.

The sermon prayer about the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts makes a big assumption about God: that God knows what we are thinking. In an era of government surveillance, in a time when Google targets its advertising based on the text of our emails, the idea that God knows our thoughts sounds alarming at first. Is nothing private?!

Today’s big question asks how God can know our thoughts. After all, we are just collections of biological systems: circulatory, respiratory, digestive, neurological. How can God know our thoughts if “thinking” is no more than electrical impulses firing between our brain cells?

During last week’s sermon, I talked about the way we think about truth in science — as something we can test and verify — versus the more ancient way we think about truth in scripture — not necessarily verifiable, but consistent with people’s real experiences of God. Science and religion answer two different questions about the world. Science tells us where we come from, how we got here, and where we are going. Religion tells us about our place in the grand scheme of things and gives us insight into our purpose: God loves us, and we belong to God. This week’s big question holds science and religion together in the same breath, which is a great insight on the part of the questioner! However, it is impossible for us to answer the question with any certainty. We can hypothesize that God exists in the gaps between our neurons, for example, but neither the Bible nor science will allow us to say for certain.

Biologically speaking, thought is the domain of the nervous system, which consists of the brain, the spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. The nervous system controls the things we don’t need to think about, things like breathing, digesting, and circulating blood. It also controls the things we do think about: running a marathon, eating an elegant meal with the correct silverware, reading books, and interpreting what everything means. The nervous system communicates via beautiful cells called neurons, which exchange electrical impulses and neurotransmitters across tiny gaps called synapses.

For thousands of years, human beings in Jewish and Christian traditions have believed that God knows our thoughts. One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 139, in which the psalmist describes the experience of being known completely by God:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

   you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

   and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

   O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

   and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

   it is so high that I cannot attain it.[1]

The psalmist describes the feeling of being hemmed in because God is everywhere. But there is comfort and freedom in being known so completely by God. As the psalmist writes later, God knows us even before we are born, and no power that can remove us from God’s presence.

Although the Bible portrays God as all-knowing, God is not Big Brother. God may know our thoughts, but we can still choose whether to give them voice. Psalm 32 describes the painful experience of trying to conceal sin from God and finding relief in the act of confession:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away

   through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

   my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

   and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,

   and you forgave the guilt of my sin.[2]

Relief comes when sin is spoken and God’s forgiveness is assured. The act of confession matters even though God knows our thoughts. This is why we confess our sins when we gather for worship on Sunday: we need the relief and healing that we receive when we name our sins and hear the good news of God’s forgiveness.

In the gospels, Jesus possesses uncanny knowledge of the people around him but is selective about how he reveals it. At the Last Supper, for example, Jesus knows that Judas has already betrayed him to the authorities. Jesus hints at the betrayal, but he chooses not to expose Judas; instead, he lets the meal of love unfold naturally, and even Judas is included.

When Jesus does disclose his knowledge of other people’s thoughts, it is for a purpose. In the gospel of John, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and engages her in conversation. Jesus reveals his true self to her with a gentle reminder of her complicated personal history. The woman understands that Jesus really is the living water to quench all thirst.

The eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us one more bit of insight into God’s knowledge of our minds. Paul writes:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[3]

Most of us have known a time when it felt impossible to pray. Paul writes that the Holy Spirit still knows what is on our hearts and communicates our concerns to God, even when we cannot give voice to them ourselves. It is a relief and a gift that talking with God does not depend on our own ability to put the correct words together: God stays in conversation with us even when we have no vocabulary, only wordless need.

So what does it mean for us that somehow, by some mysterious means, God knows our thoughts?

First, since God knows our thoughts, none of our concerns or prayers are ever lost to God, even when we don’t know the right words to say. Moreover, communication with God is not limited to people who can speak verbally. People of all ages, abilities, and developmental stages can talk to God, from pre-verbal babies to non-verbal adults with autism to people enduring the gradual losses of ALS to people in the last stages of dementia. Thanks be to God for that.

Second, since God knows our thoughts, we are not off the hook when we hurt other people or think damaging and discriminatory thoughts, even if we never say them out loud. But God leaves space for us to confess our sin and to ask for God’s help in leading lives of wholeness and healing. God gives us the opportunity to reflect, to seek transformation, and to receive forgiveness.

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be transformed in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.

[1] Psalm 139:1-6

[2] Psalm 32:3-5

[3] Romans 8:26-27