Thursday, November 4, 2010

They Took Offense at Scripture

As I pondered the title that came to me for the last post, I realized the passage of Scripture it comes from is a good illustration of people rejecting the truth from Jesus because it was foreign to what they already "knew" about spirituality and reality. If you read John 6:35-69, you see Jesus providing a radical teaching to people that caused many of them to be offended. Jesus said to them: "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (John 6:61-62). In other words, if you react that way to this level of truth, how will you handle it if some of the glory of heaven itself is opened to you?

Scripture tells us that many of the disciples of Jesus turned back after this and no longer walked with Him. But the twelve remained, because as Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68-69). By God's grace, they had the humility and dependence to recognize that only Jesus could help them understand real truth. If they rejected what He said because it alarmed them, they had nowhere else to turn for essential knowledge. And because they stayed and did not give up on His words, presumably they had the chance to get beyond the initial reaction and learn more fully what He meant. John even went on to write the very Gospel in which these teachings are recorded, and it stands as one of the deepest theological writings in the New Testament.

Do You Take Offense At This?

Can you feel it? The defensive attitude that creeps up in our hearts and minds as soon as the suggestion is raised that our understanding is very limited and flawed? It responds promptly with all sorts of objections, attempting to protect the belief that we are pretty good at figuring things out. It just can't be true that all the things we have taken the time to learn are that limited. We can't really be as ignorant of the world as children are! What a terrifying thought! Their knowledge leaves them so helpless and dependent, and so easy to take advantage of. We've matured far beyond that. We know much more about how the world works now. We've put a lot of thought into our beliefs and convictions and tested them many times.

Yes, and no. It's obviously true that we know more than children do. We find it very easy to correct them and we find their innocent efforts to understand things to be cute and even amusing. But we seem to have got hold of the idea that we are very far advanced in understanding now, and that there is not a lot of distance between us and very mature knowledge compared to the distance between us and what a child knows. That's our crucial mistake. We think that when we approach the Bible or learn to know God, we are adults. But when you consider how far above us in every way the Lord of all creation must be, then when you compare our relationship to children with what He knows, it makes us much more like the six-year-old explaining to his baby brother how he thinks the toilet works.

All our knowledge is valuable, and the time we took to gain it was well spent, but there is a great deal that still needs to be corrected and added to. The complexity of what we haven't learned yet is amazing. We have also gained a number of flawed ideas along the way just as we've gained true ideas. We may not like the realization that we are children in our understanding of reality, but it's true. There is so much that we don't know about the spiritual life that we depend heavily on someone to protect us and to provide for our needs just as children depend on others. If we don't approach God with the same attitude of dependence and trust that a child has for the parent that provides the child with the right food and warns the child that the stove is hot, we are not going to learn very much and we will get burned a lot.

Part of the reason we resist this is a lack of trust in God. Recognizing our own limitations forces us to depend on God, which is what the life of faith is all about. But we tend to feel threatened by the idea that we need to be dependent on anyone or anything - self-reliance and individuality are modern idols. That is why, in embracing our relationship with God, we have to learn to trust Him with everything instead of thinking we have life under control. We need to let go of the illusion that our knowledge is enough, and put our hope in God that He will take care of everything if we just listen to Him. It's Matthew 6:31-33 in action - seek first the kingdom of God, and He will provide everything you need.

We Must Think Like Children in Order to Learn from God

How does receiving the kingdom of heaven like little children change our thinking? Instead of starting with the assumption that what we already think we know is correct and reliable, we ought to start with putting our trust in God to teach us. A child has to be carefully guided by a parent in many ways every day in order to correct childlike misunderstandings and ideas that come from limited knowledge. Many things are simply beyond the child's understanding until the child grows older. So the child has to trust that the parent really knows what he or she is talking about. The child has to depend on the parent's knowledge as true and superior to what the child thinks.

If we honored God with this same sort of trust, then we would start with the conviction that what God tells us is correct and reliable. We would start by taking it as certain that what is written in the Bible is really true and accurate. If we really trust God as our Father and believe He tells us the truth, then we should be open to having our previous beliefs and convictions changed and refined by the more accurate and mature information in Scripture, instead of expecting Scripture to just fit in with what we already "know."

This is the way the fathers of the Church thought of it. Consider the way Paul talked to some of those he led: "But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh." (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). [That is, you are still thinking with a mind set on the flesh instead of a renewed mind.] And the author of Hebrews said: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:12-14). We are genuinely children in our relationship to God, and it is vanity for us to think of ourselves as anything else.

The Difference in Having a Christian Mind

Here's an example of the difference in having a mind renewed by Christ. One of the major breakthroughs I've experienced in studying the Bible and living life in Christ is the realization that people generally start with the wrong attitude toward understanding God. We tend to approach what's in the Bible with an attitude of confidence in what we already think we know about the world, and when any verse of the Bible or any doctrine seems to be in tension with what we think we already know, we look at it suspiciously and mumble, "Wait, now how can that be true?" In fairness, many of us try hard to examine these things and sort them out instead of just giving up. But often the problem is not with what the Scripture seems to say, but with the assumptions we are already holding on to.

If we are going to try to encounter and learn to understand an infinite God, who exceeds the universe and existed before time, common sense should tell us that He is going to blow away our expectations and be very different from what we suppose. It would be silly for us to think that when we learned anything about God, it would be just like things we already knew and we wouldn't have to correct any of our prior ideas. If we are to know the Lord at all, we are going to have to prepare ourselves for the fact that much of what we think we know will be shown to be very incomplete and flawed.

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when He said that unless we receive the kingdom of God like little children, we will never enter it. (Matthew 18:1-4; Mark 10:14-15; Luke 18:16-17). Some interpreters conclude this means we have to receive the kingdom of God with the same helpless dependence with which children depend on parents for food and protection – we must do it relying entirely on God by trust, instead of thinking we can manage it somewhat on our own. I believe that's true, and I think that also implies that we must receive the kingdom of God with a childlike trust that acknowledges how little we really understand. We need to rely instead on the wisdom and judgment of God as a child relies on the guidance of a parent.

This is surely the right attitude to have toward God: instead of thinking we could understand all His reasons and commands if He just explained them, we ought to realize that the mind of the Lord is deeper and vaster than our mind can possibly take in. We shouldn't be surprised if some of the truths God reveals about reality are strange, confusing, or even shocking. Nor should it surprise us that some things are hard to understand and we can't figure them all out right away. We should look to our Father with trust, believing that He knows all of these things and understands them, and that He loves us and will lead us safely through them.