October 4, 2014.
Perhaps one of the things I miss most about being in Chattanooga surrounded by people of a like faith basically at all times is the deep theological conversations that would spontaneously erupt. With ease one of us could say something like “What is grace?” or “Why do we have free will?” and the conversation would go from there. I remember late nights that concluded in joyful revelation and deeper understanding along with others where further questions were left to be explored at a different time. I remember being on the beach at quite late one night on retreat and having experiences that would impact lives in ways that were yet to be revealed. This level of understanding and further study reenforces faith more than can be explained. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the norm in the everyday “adult” Christian life, and that is ultimately frustrating to me.
Yet the word of God is placed before us in such a way that to come to the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, this deep thinking and understandings are not initially necessary. This is the beauty in the word of God, that it is living and active. The message of Christ is so wonderfully simple, yet the foundation on which it is based is so immensely complex. I for one am overwhelmed in awe of the Almighty and the way He was able to offer such knowledge. To those who are new to the word, the gospel leading to salvation can be taught in mere hours, but to those who are maturing in the faith, a lifetime can be spent studying the word of God. This dynamic separates the word of God from the word of man.
Yet this dynamic sometimes poses an interesting problem for those who do not understand it, which can be said about all of us at times I suppose. People tend to get stuck on one side or the other and are ineffective in spreading the gospel because of it. I think Paul addresses hints at this problem in his letter to the church at Corinth.
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”
(I Corinthians 2:1-7)
When Paul first came to Corinth, he did not try to impress them with human wisdom, nor did he preach a deep, theological lecture on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for the town of Corinth was a predominately pagan town who did not have a heavy influence of Judaism. He came to them with the message of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. What beautiful simplicity. Yet, the teaching of Christ didn’t stop there. Paul goes on to say “to the mature, we do impart wisdom,” implying the need to continue to grow and mature in spiritual wisdom as one walks his or her journey with Christ. We cannot stagnate at the onset of our belief, for the message of salvation is so much deeper than that. The Hebrew writer comments:
“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.”
So we must mature in the faith, longing for the wisdom that comes from above. It is this learning and understanding that thrills me. I have gained a healthy respect and love for Old Testament literature and I love seeing how it ties in to the overall plan of God. I enjoy reading the letters and learning about the connections people had in New Testament times. I find prophecy fascinating, though I do not claim to be an expert in interpretation, and I soak it in. Yet there is a problem that can arise in this as well. Sometimes when we get too deep into theology, we loose sight of the simplicity of the message preached. I have said before that sometimes, or perhaps even often, theology ruins religion.
Now, am I against the study of theology? Of course not. But I am against study to the extent where the learner at some level finds that he or she is on the level of God (though not consciously), deciding what one passage means through reasoning instead of what God says, or deciding which passages apply and which don’t apply. We can reach a level of arrogance that blinds us to the simple truths of God’s word. It frustrates me immensely when I read a commentary on a verse or a passage of scriptures that spends pages and pages explaining why the writer didn’t actually mean what he said in the passage. No. You have transcended the simplicity of the message. Let the writer speak for himself. Though it may be based on deep implications, the final conclusion, or the final word, on many subjects are quite simple in nature.
Simplicity does not imply ignorance. To the contrary, it is often said that if you can explain something in such a way that a child can understand it, then you truly understand the concept. Obviously this is a general rule that does not always apply, but I do believe there is a lot of truth in it. We must remember that the word of God isn’t only written for those who have dedicated their lives to the study of theology. Actually, much of it was literally written to the common man at the time of writing. Were they expected to know all the implications and the whole foundation the message was based on? No. Perhaps they were expected to know some, depending on the audience, but if it takes a doctoral training to understand the bible, then I’m afraid most of us are indeed lost and without hope. Yet at the doctoral level, one can still find fascinating and intriguing aspects of the word of God that were unknown to them previously, which can indeed strengthen their ability to preach the gospel.
The other side of the coin, however, is no better. Yes, there is simplicity in the message preached, but if we stagnate in that simplicity, detrimental things can happen to our soul and the souls that we intend to teach. I believe this is the far more common mistake Christians make in our society today. There are relatively few Christians who go on to study the bible in a deep sense. Yes, some do, but many accept what they have originally been taught and do not progress much further than that. This I believe produces a very shallow Christianity that is endangered with opinions that are not based in scripture that can be counterproductive to the goal. We must teach simply, but in order to effectively do this, I believe a deeper understanding of the foundation upon which the gospel is based is indeed necessary.
Take, for example, if I understood that belief in the Lord was necessary to inherit an eternal home of bliss, but I didn’t understand why. I might teach others to believe simply to get the reward at the end. This is shallow Christianity, a faith that will almost certainly be choked out quickly. Or take something that is perhaps even more damaging to Christianity as a whole. Say I knew you had to believe to become a Christian, but I didn’t know you had to repent of the sins you were committing when you would come to Christ. Say I didn’t even know what those sins were. I might teach others to believe in the way I did, but I would not be preaching the whole truth and I would effectively be causing the loss of more souls than gain, for others might look upon my unrepentant life and decide that they can continue in sin as well.
A shallow understanding of the foundation and aspects of God does more harm than good. Often with this shallow understanding, people appeal more to their opinion of something when answering a question as opposed to appealing to scripture. They might say “I feel like we should do such and such,” or “I don’t think God would really do that,” as opposed to “This is what the word of God tells us to do,” or “God’s character is revealed in this passage.” This is why we must grow and mature in Christ. It is okay to have a shallow understanding at first, for you have just started your journey. You are not expected to know everything before you become a Christian. However, it is not okay to stay there. The Hebrew writer above said “For though by this time you ought to be teachers…” We are expected to mature to the point at which we can effectively teach, and this does take a certain amount of time. But we must not take too long, lest we become as those the Hebrew writer was addressing.
The word of God is beautifully simple yet amazingly complex. We must treat it as so. I believe that we should speak simply, but think deeply. The level at which we discuss a concept should often be decided by the level of faith present in the audience. In preaching, we should explain things as simply as possible yet with a deep level of understanding. As always, we should ever strive to better understand the word and feed off its nourishment, yet maintain humility. We must always remember where our wisdom comes from and not lean on our own understandings.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.”
Suggested Daily Reading: Proverbs 1-3, I Corinthians 2.
The Lord grant you wisdom.