What’s the Measure of Our Knowledge?

Jesus invites us to raise the ceiling level on our spiritual understanding.

In a block of parables (Mark 4:1-34) that Jesus teaches his disciples, he makes the following comment:

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mark 4:24-25).

It’s a puzzling statement, especially if you think Jesus is talking economics. In that context, Jesus seems to be giving sanction to blatant financial inequality. But the context in which the two verses appear shows that Jesus is not referring to financial concerns. He is talking about understanding the word of God and the pursuit of wisdom.

In that pursuit, Jesus is saying, I believe, that the amount of effort we put into the pursuit will in part determine what we find in our pursuit. So when we seek to understand the word of God, give full attention to our effort. Otherwise we will miss a lot, maybe miss the most important things.

If we take Jesus’ word seriously, it makes a difference in the way we read the Bible. When we hear the Bible read in church or we open our Bible on our lap to read, we need to give it as much of our attention as we can at that moment.

This does not mean we will understand everything we hear or read. We won’t. The Bible is full of puzzling statements. But if we listen intently, we stand a better chance of absorbing what the text actually says rather than what we think it says.

We may notice, for example, that the text surprises us by its peculiar choice of words. That’s not what we expect the author to say, but he does. That may cause us to ask why, and from pursuing an answer we may stumble onto a new insight.

Tools for Paying Close Attention

The practices of exegesis are one of the ways we try to listen intently to what the text says. Those practices are designed so that we do our best to draw the author’s meaning out of the text rather than reading our own meaning into the text.

These practices are not, however, peculiar to Bible reading. I first learned the basics of exegesis in a college class in poetry writing. We use these same techniques when we try to read any literary text closely.

In a future blog, I will try to describe some of these basic principles as I have come to practice them.

A second way we can let the text sink deeply into our consciousness is a form of Bible reading known as lectio divina (Latin for divine reading). This is a very old technique with roots in ancient Israel and Christian monasticism. It seeks to turn Bible reading into a means of prayer. It is also the roots of the Evangelical practice of the quiet time.

In lectio divina we are not trying to understand the text, but let the words sink into our consciousness and take root. As we read we stop at a word or phrase or sentence that reaches out and grabs our attention. We then turn that word over and over in our mind, as a cow chews its cud, exploring the different facets of that word, trying to understand why it speaks to us.

In the process the word, phrase, sentence stands a chance of becoming rooted in our memory. It is because of this practice, I suspect, that the words of Scripture became so embedded in the character and thought of the Church Fathers and the monks. It was almost as if they breathed Scripture.

The Spiritual Principle Behind Jesus’ Saying

Now the interesting thing in this Marcan saying is that Jesus seems to be saying that the measure of attention we give to listening will determine to a large degree the measure of insight we receive. In-depth listening will be rewarded with in-depth and growing insight; lazy, superficial listening will be rewarded with shallow insight. And the one who neglects listening runs the risk of losing whatever insight he or she has.

Jesus’ saying does not promise that careful, attentive listening will be rewarded with perfect understanding. No one, especially as an individual, is granted that blessing. But careful, attentive listening will open the door of the mind to ever deepening understanding.

Behind this saying of Jesus lies an even deeper spiritual principle. That is, that as we grow in the Spirit, we are granted an opportunity to grow in spiritual wisdom. And the measure of the intent of our search becomes a measure of what we will ultimately find.

This reminds me of another saying of Jesus:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

I suspect that it is an understanding of this principle that lies behind the apostle Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. He laments that he would like to speak to them as spiritual people, but he cannot because they are only beginners in the life of the spirit.

He compares them to infants that he must feed with milk, because they are not yet mature enough to eat solid food. And what shows their immaturity? The level of jealousy, strife, and quarreling that is going on in the congregation. This behavior reveals the immature level they have attained so far in their spiritual lives. If Paul were to speak about spiritual things at a deeper level with them, it would be like what Jesus describes as throwing pearls in front of swine (Matthew 7:6).

I think C.S. Lewis says something similar about growth in moral knowledge. In his book Mere Christianity, he writes:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.*

 The Sign of One’s Growth in Spiritual Wisdom

One last thing to say about this principle of the spiritual life. If we are growing in our spiritual understanding, we are not growing in infallibility. We are instead growing in our awareness of our capability of being wrong. We are confident but confidence does not award certitude. Instead we know how easy it is to get things wrong. We therefore welcome doubt as a precious companion in our journey to understand. In the highest levels of spiritual wisdom we become the most humble about what we know just as much as we are about how good we are.

* C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958. Book III, Chapter 4, “Morality and Psychoanalysis.”

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