I was admonished by a pastor once, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” At the time perhaps my head was in the clouds, or I was “over spiritualizing” a topic of discussion. But many years have passed since then and I haven’t really thought about it until recently. I read an interesting discussion on a SouthernGospel.com forum in which it was suggested that being too “spiritual” or heavenly minded is a matter of doing things that are seen as offensive, such as taking too much time to say grace, annoying others with your faith instead of being winsome, assuming a position of superiority or judgementalism over other believers, etc. While I understand that words can have connotations beyond their normal use, and that the meanings of words can be tweaked to fit certain playful applications, such as double entendres, in the case of dealing with this popular proverb, I want to know exactly what is in the mind of a person who says it.
I have come across a familiar piece of Scripture (cited later) that has resulted in my taking a fresh look at this saying. First of all, there is no verse in the Bible that says, “If you’re too heavenly minded you won’t be any earthly good.” So, this statement reflects a non-Biblical opinion. Equally, the terms “heavenly minded” and “earthly good” also represent non-Biblical value judgements. In this context, being “heavenly minded” can mean anything religious. And “earthly good” can mean anything that works to one’s advantage in a practical sense. Similar sayings that rely on pragmatic results for proving worth are “Smart is as smart does.” and “But does it put food on the table?”.
So, the value of being “heavenly minded” is being weighed against the value of having any “earthly good”. Here, the sole criteria for evaluating “spiritual” thinking is whether or not it produces anything considered useful or advantageous. This judgement is made by the observer. The word “too” indicates that being “spiritual” or “heavenly minded” is OK, up to a point but that in excess, it becomes harmful. Like drinking alcohol, it needs to be moderated, balanced. But since the “heavenly minded” person is unaware of when he’s being “too” spiritual, others must make that judgement for him. The fallacy here is that each observer has his own idea of what exactly constitutes too much heavenly mindedness.
As I thought back to that pastor who had “corrected” me, I began to feel quite bad for him, because Scripture gives us a very different lesson. An interesting exchange between Peter and Jesus is recorded in Matthew 16:21-23. When Jesus told his disciples that he must, “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”, Peter rebuked him and said, “Never, Lord! … This shall never happen to you!” Previous to that, in verses 15-19, Jesus had told Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this [from verse 16 that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God"] was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
But now, only a few verses later, as Jesus hears this same, blessed disciple rebuking him, he turns his back on Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.“ Peter was concerned for Jesus’ well-being. He didn’t yet understand how Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection would offer salvation to the world. He was so focused on human wisdom he was being a stumbling block to Jesus. Peter was so worldly minded he was of no spiritual good, the exact opposite of what he had been in verse 17, when Jesus told him his understanding came from God, not man.
Given that these two examples are polar opposites, we will not always have such extreme choices. However, they do serve to clarify our options. Do you prefer the wisdom of man or the wisdom of God? Would you prefer being heavenly minded and of no earthly good, or worldly minded and of no spiritual good? For me the choice is clear. I would rather “have in mind the things of God” that they may see my good deeds and praise my Father in heaven (paraphrasing Matthew 5:16).
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20)
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)
“We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” (1 Corinthians 2:12)
“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, for they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
“Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (1 Corinthians 3:18,19)