For some of us, the strength of our faith is gauged by how close we feel to God at any given moment—by how a sermon made us feel, by how a worship chorus made us feel, by how our quiet time made us feel. Hidden in this thinking is an honest desire to share a deep relationship with a personal God, but sustaining our emotions can be exhausting and defeating.

Changing circumstances can topple our emotional stability in an instant. Our “walk with the Lord” can feel more like a roller-coaster ride of peaks and valleys than a straight path in which valleys and mountains have been made level.

Could this be because we’ve gotten things backwards? By asking our hearts to lead our minds, have we willingly purchased a ticket to the roller-coaster ride? Unless we turn things around, placing the mind in charge of the heart, we could be in for a long, wild ride.

Romans 12:2-3 tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” What Christian doesn’t desperately want life transformation and knowledge of the will of God? In these verses, Paul states unequivocally how we can have them: by the renewing of our minds—not our hearts.

For years I tried to love God with my heart to the neglect of my mind, not recognizing my need to grow in the knowledge of the “I AM.” Any systematic study of the Bible felt mechanical, even a little like an act of faithlessness or an admission that the Holy Spirit’s insight during a quiet time wasn’t enough for me. But I was missing the important truth that the heart cannot love what the mind does not know. This is the message of Romans 12:2-3—not that the mind alone affects transformation, but that the path to transformation runs from the mind to the heart, and not the other way around.

Think about the relationship, possession, or interest you derive the most pleasure from. How did you develop that delight? Whether you are passionate about modern art, your car, conservation, your spouse, nutrition, education, or baseball, my guess is that you became that way by learning about the object of your passion—and that your pleasure in it grew as your knowledge grew.

End of the honeymoon

Marriage may be the most obvious example of this process. Most people get married on very little information. Have you noticed this?

We stake our future on a relatively short acquaintance, in large part due to a rush of emotion that hits us during the courtship phase. We marry, awash with feelings of love for our spouse, but knowing rather little about him in the grand scheme of things.

Those initial feelings of love either dwindle or deepen, depending on how we nurture them. Looking back on 20 years of marriage, I can honestly say that I love my husband exponentially more than I did on our wedding day. Why? Because I have made a study of him, and he of me.

Knowing him has grown my love for him. On our wedding day I suspected he would be a good father, a hard worker, and a faithful sounding board, but 20 years later I know him to be these things. My love for him has grown as my knowledge of him has increased.

Now think about your relationship to God in the same light. Most people come to faith in God on very little information. We understand that we need forgiveness and grace, and we’re ushered into the kingdom on a wave of deep emotion. But we hold only a small sense of the One who has brought us to Himself. We suspect that He is all good things, but we have not yet made a study of Him. Like a new bride, we reach the end of the honeymoon phase and begin to wonder how we are to sustain and nurture this relationship.

The answer lies in knowing God, in loving Him with our minds. Never has the phrase “to know Him is to love Him” been more true. As we grow in the knowledge of God’s character through the study of His Word, we cannot help but grow into an exponentially deeper love for Him. This explains why Romans 12:2 says we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We come to understand who God is, and we are changed—our affections detach from lesser things and attach to Him. If we want to feel a deeper love for God, we must learn to see Him more clearly for who He is. If we want to feel deeply about God, we must learn to think deeply about God.

Consider another illustration: If I told you that I loved the piano and took great enjoyment in playing it, how could you discover whether my feelings about the piano were real or not? Simple. Just ask me to play for you.

A person who truly loves to play the piano disciplines herself to make a study of it. Through much application of mental discipline, her proficiency at playing—and consequently, her love for playing—grow and flourish.

Informed by the knowledge of God

The heart cannot love what the mind does not know. We must love God with our minds, allowing our intellect to inform our emotions, rather than the other way around.

Seeing ourselves in the Bible and engaging our emotions in loving God are beautiful things. But they belong in the back, a secondary reward for obediently seeking that which is primary. Bible study that equips does not neglect self-knowledge, but it puts self-knowledge in the right place: informed by the knowledge of God. Bible study that equips does not divorce the heart from study, but it puts the heart in the right place: informed by the mind.

Perhaps you have gotten things backward like me. Perhaps you’ve realized the ill-fitting discomfort of Bible study that focuses on who you are and what you should do more than one who God is, or of Bible study that targets your emotions more than your intellect. It’s not too late to turn things around.

Excerpt adapted from Women of the Word © 2014 by Jen Wilkin, pages 28-34. Used by permission of Crossway. All rights reserved. Used with permission.