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.”

When Hypocrisy Feeds Doubt

Note: This posting continues my discussion on the pervasive experience of doubt in the Christian’s spiritual journey. It has been my topic of discussion in my last three postings. You may want to read them first for context.

Bible text: Mark 9:23-24

Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I was once making a pastoral call on a woman who had been active in our church, but was now homebound after a serious injury. She loved her church. Her husband, on the other hand, disdained anything dealing with church.

As she and I chatted, her husband walked in. We had never met. After introductions, he began his rant against churches. The heart of his beef? The hypocrisy of  Christians. They preached one thing, he said, but did not live it out in their behavior. Somewhere in his younger days he had been exposed to a huge dose of toxic religion.

I think the shortfall between what the churches preach and how ordinary Christians live creates the most disbelief. Behind many of the most sophisticated intellectual attacks on Christianity often lies a bad experience with Christians. Or historical memories of the evil Christians have done in the name of Christ, evils like anti-Semitism, inquisitions, witch trials, etc.

The emotional damage goes even deeper if the bad experience was with clergy. Sexual abuse by clergy has gotten the most news coverage in recent years. But let us never forget the damage that clergy have done by small things such as an insensitive remark to the parents when a child dies or a lie told to a parishioner.

I must confess that I find this problem of the discrepancy between talk and walk one of the hardest things that I must deal with as a minister, whether I am talking with unbelievers or troubled churchgoers.  It is where I, too, prove most vulnerable to the assaults of doubt.

A Promise of Transformation?

Cynthia Bourgeault, a Christian contemplative, has written, “Among the worldwide religions, Christianity is surely one of those most urgently and irrevocably set upon the total transformation of the human person.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cowley Publications, 2004, page 9).

I think Bourgeault captures a central theme of the message preached by both Jesus and the apostle Paul. Paul expresses it in a nutshell. “…if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

This is stirring language. But if you look at the lives of most Christians, does it ring true? Do they live lives transformed in attitudes and behavior?

Certainly some do. There is no more spectacular example that Francis of Assisi. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he lived as a playboy in his adolescence. When he encountered the call of Jesus, however, all that changed. He began to live simply, austerely, and with gentle compassion, not only for other human beings but also for all living creatures. In a real way, he experienced the power of the gospel to transform.

Another spectacular example is Bill Wilson (Bill W.), a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. With his life shattered by alcoholism, he entered a hospital. There in the depths of deep depression, he cried out “If there be a God, let him show himself!” There in that same hospital room, he had a life-changing religious experience. It brought him the assurance he was free from his addiction.

Bill W. took his experience and with it expressed the fundamental principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. One fundamental principle of sobriety is the reliance upon a “higher power.”  (For the story of Bill W., and other stories of transformed people, I recommend John M. Mulder’s book, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.)

But what about the rest of us who show no such dramatic transformation? We come across as half-breeds. We experience some of the new, but also a good portion of the old. When we fall short, those who expect us to live exemplary lives use our shortcomings to question the power and truth of what we preach. Doubt has a fertile growing field.

Of course what many despisers of the gospel don’t appreciate is that the power of the Christian gospel to transform seldom works instantaneously. The gospel works like leaven for most people on the Christian spiritual journey. The values of the gospel must penetrate deeply into the heart and mind of the believer. That takes time. It did even for Francis and Bill W.

That’s why humility is one of the greatest Christian virtues. All of us fall short of the values we espouse, and we bring great discredit to God’s name when we fail to acknowledge that every day. A fundamental rhythm of the Christian life is our asking for forgiveness and our conferring it on others.

In the liturgy of the Presbyterian church that I serve, worship begins with a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon. Some have told me that they consider this a negative way to begin worship. I disagree. It is beginning worship with an acknowledgement of reality. We Christians always fall short of the high standards we espouse.

Still, those who are hostile to the Christian faith can use the hypocrisy of Christians to pointedly argue that Christianity is a delusion, if not a menace to humanity. How can we respond to that charge without denying the reality of our serious failures?

Some Help from C. S. Lewis

I have found something that C.S. Lewis wrote for children helpful in this way. The fourth volume of his Narnia Chronicles is titled The Silver Chair. It tells the story of a prince of Narnia, heir to the throne, who is abducted by a wicked witch and imprisoned in an underground chamber.

Aslan the lion (the Christ figure of the fairy tales) commissions two human children to find and free this missing prince. Their guide is Puddleglum, a marshwiggle, a swamp creature who is a blend of a human being and a frog.

The children and Puddleglum do find the prince. They help him break free of the witch’s spell. They are about to leave the enchanted chamber when the witch walks in. She immediately begins her strategy to reactivate the spell on the prince and to extend it to the two other children and the marshwiggle.

Her strategy is to breed doubt in their minds. As they describe the glories of the Overworld (Narnia), the witch implies that these are only projections of their own minds. They talk of the sun. She says they only dream of it. The reality is that their sun is simply an ordinary lamp.

When they talk of Aslan, she says they are confused in their minds. He is nothing more than a house cat.

Her spell almost works until Puddleglum stomps on her magic incense with his webfoot and smothers it. He then says to the witch:

…I won’t deny any of what you said…Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. [The Silver Chair, Chapter Twelve]

The despisers of Christianity like to throw the failures of Christians in our faces. And the failures are real. But in the end it is not the failures of Christians that inspire us to believe. It is the beauty of the way of life that Jesus and the gospels set before us. To paraphrase Puddleglum, the vision of living that Jesus presents before us licks the alternate visions that the world sets up for our emulation.

Jesus’ original twelve disciples were not a perfect lot. In fact, one denied him; another betrayed him into his death. But Jesus says to them, “Come, follow me.” And so we continue to do, honoring the vision as best we can with the Holy Spirit’s help.

Let me close this series with the words of the distraught father, who begs Jesus to heal his tormented son. “I believe; help my unbelief.”[Mark 9:24]


A Biblical Model for Voicing Our Rage

Bible text: Psalm 137

As a poem, Psalm 137 reminds me of that insect-eating plant, the Venus flycatcher. Like the plant’s succulent smell, the opening words of this psalm pull us movingly into its expression of sorrow.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

We live through the anguish of this psalmist who has survived the Babylonian destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.

But as we read on, we find the sentiments become darker and rawer. The psalmist asks for divine vengeance on the Edomites who taunted the captives as they were led out of the city.

And then come some of the most vindictive words in all of the Bible. The psalmist turns his bitterness on his Babylonian captors. He cries out:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones

and dashes them against the rock.

We cringe in disgust at the sheer hate expressed in this line. How did it ever manage to be included in the holy book?

That question has troubled Bible readers for generations. Some deal with it by banning the recitation of this psalm in any Christian worship service. They say it does not fit with the irenic spirit of Jesus.

Others deal with the raw sentiments of this psalm by allegorizing them. C.S. Lewis is one. In his Reflections on the Psalms, he interprets the little babies as the infantile temptations, the small indulgences, and the petty angers that afflict us all.

They woo us and wheedle us, he says, with tiny special pleadings that make us believe that if we indulge in these tiny sins, no harm will be done. But these tiny sins can grow into something monstrous. So Lewis advises that we follow the advice of the psalm and knock out the brains of these tiny sins before they grow up.

I have a major problem with both strategies. Both reduce the Christian faith, I fear, into a form of cotton candy: sweet, gooey, and ultimately insubstantial. If Christianity cannot deal with the ugly realities of real life—like violence, injustice and the hatreds they trigger—does it have any place in a thinking person’s life?

Someone who speaks a similar sentiment is Kathleen Norris, that wonderful Presbyterian writer who has found so much spiritual nourishment in Catholic monasteries. She writes of one convent where the nuns had banned all cursing psalms like 137 from their daily liturgy.

But Norris quotes another nun, a liturgist, who visited the convent and came away saying, “I begin to feel antsy, feeling something is not right. The human experience is violence, and the psalms reflect the violence of the world.” (See Norris’ chapter on the psalms in her book The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, Page 97.)


Being Clear-eyed About the Violence of Life

Indeed, violence is a part, a huge part, of human experience, and something is not right when we banish acknowledgement of that fact from our religious life and worship. The Bible certainly does not.

Psalm 137 stands as eloquent testimony to the anger, anguish, and hatred that violence and injustice triggers in us human beings.  Here we experience the bitterness the survivors felt in their exile and the hatred that exile has bred for their captors.

Before any of us condemn such feelings, I think we need first to have experienced what those exiles had undergone. It is terribly sanctimonious of any of us to say to the wife who lost a husband in the collapse of the World Trade Center that she must forgive the Muslim jihadists the violence they caused.

It is also sanctimonious of us to say that survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima must forgive the Americans who obliterated their city.

Unless any of us have gone through such horrific experiences, we need to be careful about how quickly we preach Christian forgiveness. For such terrible violence does indeed breed deep levels of rage. And rage is an appropriate response to such violence.

Violence against another person creates deep scars that do not quickly wash away like a fake tattoo on the skin.

This fact has come home to me in a profound way as I have gotten to know several people who were sexually abused as youngsters. I have a friend who once worked as a crisis counselor for a telephone counseling service in Dallas. The service sought to provide a listening ear to people in trouble and direct them to places where they might find the help they needed.

One night she answered the phone and started talking to a woman who told a horrific story. When her brother turned 16, her father tied her to a bed and told her brother and his friends to go to it as his birthday present. Her life was devastated by this gang rape, leaving her with deep stains of shame and anger.

Any violence we perpetrate against another leaves psychological scars. But I have come to believe that sexual abuse can be one of the most damaging things we can do to another. It triggers deep, deep anger.

We Christians can do a further injustice when we sweep such experiences under the rug and tell people, “Oh, just think positively! Forgive and forget.”


Dishing Out Our Abusive Language onto God

So is there something in this terrible psalm…and in other vindictive psalms like it…than can help us deal with such experiences in life? Yes, I believe there is.

Unless anger is released and healed, it can poison a whole personality. Psychologists say that when anger is unacknowledged and suppressed within a person, it can sometimes manifest itself as depression. The road to healing is releasing that anger.

The problem is that it must be done the right way. So often the anger we feel toward someone who has hurt us cannot be directed to that person because they are more powerful than we are and can cause even further harm.

The temptation, therefore, is to take out our anger on someone who has no connection to the problem at all. A man, for example, is berated by his boss at work. In reaction, he takes it out on his wife when he gets home. Or a child is so upset by her parents’ impending divorce that she takes out her anger by beating up another kid on the street.

Such misdirected anger feeds more anger, which in turns feeds even more anger ad infinitum. Just witness the endless rounds of revenge that have accompanied the Protestant-Catholic strife in Northern Ireland or the Israeli-Arab strife in Palestine.

What we need to notice in the cursing psalms like 137 is not just the vehement language the psalmists express towards their enemies, but also the audience to which that language is directed.  The psalms are prayers, and the one addressed in most of the psalms is not other human beings, but God.

Now, I think that is very important. Rather than heaping abuse on another person, the psalmist directs his abusive language to God.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God,” cries out another psalmist (Psalm 139:19). And yet another prays, “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers” (Psalm 10:15).

Does God approve of this kind of vindictiveness? I don’t think so. But what these prayers do do is bring the malevolent feelings into the presence of God where they can begin to be dealt with.

Years ago, I saw the play The Miracle Worker which tells the story of how Annie Sullivan was able to reach out to six-year-old Helen Keller and free Helen from her psychological and social isolation. This isolation had resulted from a fever that had left the infant Helen blind, deaf, and ultimately speechless.

Helen lives in the constant frustration of not being able to communicate with anyone.  As Sullivan begins to work with her, there is a scene where Helen takes out all her frustration on her teacher by beating Sullivan repeatedly on the chest. Sullivan holds the child in her arms until the anger subsides.

What I think is happening in the cursing psalms is something like this. People express their anger by beating on the metaphorical chest of God. And God just holds us in his arms until our screaming and yelling are exhausted. Then God says, “Let’s now deal with this anger you have just expressed.”

Slowly we can begin to come to terms with the anger and the violence that caused it. I say “slowly” because healing the anger may take some time, maybe months or years of therapy.

In this respect the cursing psalms serve a beneficial purpose. They model a kind of spiritual therapy. They show us a way to release our anger without the anger fueling another round of violence and abuse. Maybe, just maybe, in this process the anger can be transformed into the inner liberation of forgiveness.

The Oddest Image for God in the Bible

Bible text: Isaiah 31:4-5

In my personal Bible reading, I’ve recently been working my way through the first portion of the prophet Isaiah (Chapters 1-39). A few days ago, I encountered what struck me as the oddest image for God that I’ve ever found in the Bible.

The image is found in Isaiah 31:4. There God compares himself to a lion that has seized a lamb from the flock and now stands guard over his prey against all the threats of the shepherds that try to frighten him away. They raise a horrible ruckus of noise and shouting. But the lion does not run away or back off.

The text reads like this:

For thus the LORD said to me,

            As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey,

                        and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it—

            is not terrified by their shouting

                        or daunted at their noise,

            so the LORD of hosts will come down

                        to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.

            Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts

                        will protect Jerusalem;

            he will protect and deliver it,

                        he will spare and rescue it.

Comparing God to a lion is not odd in Scripture. In Job 10:16, Job compares God to a lion, who relentlessly hunts him down. In Hosea 5:14, God speaks as if he is a lion who will destroy the people of Ephraim. The metaphor of the lion is again applied to God in Hosea 11:10 and 13:7-8.

And in the New Testament, we have the famous image in Revelation 5:5 where Christ is called the Lion of Judah. C.S. Lewis has good Scriptural precedent for choosing the image of a lion as his image for Christ in his Narnia Chronicles.

But the thrust of most of the Old Testament passages is use of the image of a lion to refer to God coming in judgment upon his people. Like a lion, God will rend and devastate his people for their faithlessness.

What I find so odd about the Isaiah passage is its use of the image of a lion growling over its prey as an image for God’s protectiveness and commitment to his people Israel. God is so resolute that he will not be moved to abandon his people no matter how fearsome the enemies that attack him.

We are accustomed to think of God as the good shepherd (see Psalm 23), who protects his people against the lions and bears of life. But we are not accustomed to think of the shepherds as images of evil, and God as so resolute in his care for his people that he is like a lion who cannot be frightened into abandoning his prey, even if the threats and noises are frightful.

I find the imagery in Isaiah 31:4 an odd inversion of our expectations. God may be flexible in his tactics. After all, he is dealing with an ever fickle and vacillating humanity. This opens a window for prayer. God can change in his tactics in response to the cries of his people.

But God is resolutely immovable in his eternal person and purposes. And one of his unchangeable qualities is his care and commitment to the world he has created. The coming of God’s kingdom may be delayed by all the twists and turns of human history. But it will come.