When understanding fails
I have been offering occasional help to my son Philip, as he pursues Advanced Higher maths. Mostly this has involved a brief read at the chapter of his book and then engaging with whatever problems he is tackling. Imagine my embarrassment when he presented me with a problem in mechanics, which I just could not understand. I read it, and re-read it, but I could not make sense of the problem being posed. I could feel myself blushing. The spotlight was on me to explain and make simple what I was finding myself unable to comprehend.
How to deflect away from my ignorance?
Once the redness dissipated from my face, I heard myself speculating aloud Ė ĎI think this is a bad questioní. That is to say, in my pride, I was unwilling to admit that my inability to solve a problem was a failure on my part. Do you see what I was really saying? I was too clever not to be able to understand and solve the problem, so there must be some fault with the problem itself. It was inconceivable to me that I would not be able to crack the problem being posed. I wanted to shift the failure away from myself, to the set question, or the individual who had written the question. If I canít understand it, then it is not because of my innate thickness, or because of gaps in my mathematical knowledge, but it must be because the question has been badly expressed.
How is that for pride? Ghastly isnít it?
I had forgotten, of course, that facing what we donít understand is often an opportunity. It holds forth the prospect of a deepening understanding and extending our knowledge. Often progress is made precisely at the point where understanding has reached a limit. When that limit is recognised, then there is the possibility that it might be breached. My refusal, to admit my own limits threatened to squander that opportunity. My pride stood in the way of deeper understanding. It would give me the excuse to avoid hard thinking and new learning.
Do we not do the same with the Bible? Parts of the Bible are hard to understand. Some themes and statements are hard to reconcile. Let me give an example. In our recent Sunday evening studies in the story of Jacob, we have been introduced to an unhappy and dysfunctional family, acting selfishly, manipulatively and, frankly, godlessly. Yet that same family were the family of God, through whom the covenant promises were handed down. On the one hand we are told that God is sovereign, and yet we read of this family who acted without reference to God and hurt themselves and each other in the process. Jacob deceives his father into giving him the blessing which old Isaac had (wrongly) intended for Esau. Laban deceives Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel; Jacob manipulates circumstances to get the better of Laban. It is a story of superstition, and selfishness resulting in much pain and suffering and hurt. Yet Godís plans and purposes are not thwarted. How can a sovereign God have allowed such a mess? We find it hard to reconcile the advance of Godís purposes with the mess of relationships and lives of which we read. It is hard to sort out. The answer is that our understanding of Godís sovereignty is faulty. Godís sovereignty is more mysterious and profound than mere control.
Do you see what has happened? We have met stories which seemed to present conflicting pictures to us Ė Godís sovereignty over events on the one hand, yet terrible, godless selfishness and consequent suffering on the other hand. Some people reading this dismiss the accounts as confused, but Christians can read the accounts and allow their minds to be stretched gaining deeper insight into what it means for God to be sovereign over our lives.
God has provided us with revelation, including passages which are truly mind stretching. Sometimes we read parts of the Bible and we are left wondering whether they can sit happily with other bits Ė how can we find consistency amidst apparent contradiction?
When we come across really hard bits in the Bible, there has always been a temptation to do what I did with the maths problem Ė react with pride: the Bible must be faulty. The result is a proud, human-centred approach to the Bible, which presumes that we can sit in judgement upon it, instead of recognising its authority and sitting under its judgement upon us.
Do you know this verse?
ďBut people who arenít Christians canít understand these truths from Godís Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them because only those who have the Spirit can understand what the Spirit means.Ē (1 Corinthians 2:14, New Living Translation)
Of course, the Spirit speaks through the Word, and so it is clear from the Bible itself that understanding the Bible is a Spirit-inspired wisdom. Therefore our study of the Bible must carry this sense of our own desperate, prayerful dependence on God to help us.
The more we study the Bible, the more we should realise how superficial some of our grasp of things truly is, and the more we should hunger after a deeper insight and intuition. But that is not something we will acquire in our own strength.
Question is: are you ready for some prayer saturated hard thinking?
Your friend and minister