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Monday, December 19, 2016

Why Are We So Easily Shaken?

I won’t soon forget his face.

He was perhaps thirty or forty years of age, well-dressed and smart looking, a typical man of his era. He was just one among the thousands who had come to this week-long Christian conference.

Every morning, the speakers had been dealing with the reasons for faith, their goal being to show people how firm and rational the foundation for our beliefs really is. Naturally, in this day and age, they had found it necessary to refer often to the recent screeds of people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris, the self-appointed “brights” of the atheist world, the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the secular apocalypse; though, really, all four are theological lightweights, since contempt for one’s subject matter tends to make one rather imprecise. Anyway, they make their way by preaching to the atheistic converted, reciting to them the same old canards that have been circulating since Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. (Truly there is no new thing under the sun.)

Anguish and Relief

Nevertheless, they have unsettled the faith of many, particularly those who have not had the chance (or inclination) to plunge into the controversies they employ in their anti-evangelical project to unsettle or de-convert as many Christians as possible, or at least to disorient the masses with regard to the faith.

On the final day of the conference, we all stood to applaud the fine work of one Dr. John Lennox, retired Oxford professor of Mathematics, who had done a sterling job of defending the faith using the tools of science and reason. Of course, he had not needed to go into any great theological depth (the New Atheists’ cant isn’t of a very demanding sort, really, since none of them seems to know much at all about the faith) and as it seemed to me, Dr. Lennox had simply reinforced some of the basics that every Christian should probably know already.

I saw the man rise to his feet, his face contorting in anguish and relief, spasms of emotion racking his frame. He pounded his hands together with resounding claps, remaining on his feet until the guest of honour had departed the stage, striving (unsuccessfully) to prevent the tears from coursing down his cheeks. His shoulders shook with the effort, and it was very clear he was fighting a battle of self-mastery he was losing.

Another Story ...

Three days ago she came to see me — the mother of one of my students.

She knocked timidly at the door of my classroom, and when admitted sat down on one of the desks in front of me. Her shoulders slumped, and as she began her voice broke.

“I’m not going to cry … okay, maybe I am … but I just want to say … thank you.”

I waited, speechless.

“My son … we just talked for an hour … he said to me, ‘Mom, I have hope. He gave me reasons …’ And I just want to say, ‘God bless you: keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”

I hardly knew how to respond. All we had really discussed in our Philosophy class was the basic differential reasoning between atheists and theists — rudimentary stuff, really. Why this had been so revelatory for her son I could not say, though apparently it had somehow rocked his world. I thanked her for coming to tell me, and she left, still dabbing her eyes.

Shaking Faith

So now I ask myself: why are we so easily unsettled? Why do the hollow canards of the New Atheist set trouble us so? Why is the least mention of actual reasons for faith such a startling revelation to so many of us? What kind of a faith have we actually been practicing?

I’m not trying to be critical. A simple faith, based on a child-like trust is not to be despised. In the end, compared to the Supreme Being, we are all just children in our understanding, really. But is that the right kind of faith for everyone? Is it the final stage of our knowledge for all time? Once saved, are we to remain na├»ve about the essential nature of our faith, the deeper truths of scripture, or the practical reasoning behind our beliefs? Or are we to move forward to greater understanding and maturity?

I cannot help but think of the epistle to the Hebrews. In it, the writer challenges the believers concerning the level of understanding they have of their faith. He tasks them to “press on”, to grow and mature, not being satisfied with knowing only the first things about salvation (even though those are, in themselves, good things). First things are not all there are. There are deep things. There are profound things. There is being well-grounded in faith, and not easily shaken by every wind that blows. Peter talks about the fuller, “higher knowledge” (lit.) of Christ that is sufficient for “everything pertaining to life and godliness”, and about how such knowledge empowers a Christian to be “neither useless nor unfruitful”, guaranteed.

Becoming Teachers

But in Hebrews we read that the believers had not pressed on to this sort of knowledge. They had stayed “milky”, not “meaty”, in their knowledge of God, hanging onto old traditions and shadow religiosity that was passing away, instead of growing up into Christ. Thus they were not only too easily shaken from their confidence but insufficiently capable of instructing one another in the truth. It reads:
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”
By this time …” It was only supposed to be a matter of time until these believers naturally reached the next stage of their faith. Notice that: time, not special skills or superior opportunities. There was a natural, to-be-expected moving on for them. And they’d had the necessary time: but it just hadn’t happened.

Time for what? “By this time, you ought to be teachers”. You ought to be. You ought to have moved beyond the needy, childhood stage of your understanding, and now be actively helping others to understand the truth about Christ. “Teaching” is this next natural phase in the advancing development of every Christian, as he or she moves from immaturity to maturity.

Use It or Lose It

But what had happened instead? In failing to press on and become teachers, the believers had actually lost even that knowledge they once had! They needed again to be taught the basics, because they’d lingered so long in the shallow end of the pool that they’d lost a grip on even the simplest of truths. As the old saying goes, “Use it or lose it” — they hadn’t used their knowledge, and so they’d lost it. They were back to square one.

Finally, the writer says essentially, “I wanted to take you all on to the next level of insight, to reveal deep and precious truths about Christ, and yet at the moment, I just cannot go there”. They simply were nowhere near the stage they needed to be at even to understand what he was saying; so there was no use in him trying.

They were not learning, and they were not going to learn any more until they relearned all the basics. Once they grasped the simple, “milky” kid’s stuff again, and got it down so well they could teach it, then and only then would they be able to move on to the better, higher, more exciting truths he was longing to teach them.

The Blessings of Teaching

Now, I know there is a specific spiritual gift of teachers. Some people take that to mean that only certain specially gifted people can be expected to teach truth. But notice there’s also a special gift of evangelists, and yet all Christians are called to evangelize. We cannot beg off our duty to become mature in our faith so as to teach others by shifting responsibility to those few who perhaps can hold a large audience for long periods of time. We all have a duty to teach the truths of the faith to our children, to speak of them with our spouses and Christian friends, and even to explain them to questioning unbelievers in a gentle and reverent way. We are all required to become teachers in those contexts.

And by talking over our faith with others, we find ourselves stretched. Their questions challenge us. Their perspectives give us insights. Their feedback teaches us when we are being clear and when we only think we’re being clear. This exchange forces us to grow continuously, to add new understandings to our faith, and to expand our knowledge of the word of God. Absent such incentives, we easily slide back into superficial platitudes and drowsy half-awareness. We lose even what we think we have.

A Challenge

May I respectfully suggest we have not asked enough of ourselves recently? Is it possible we’ve allowed ourselves to be content with Sunday attendance and have not pressed on to the deeper knowledge of our Lord? How many of us have no personal Bible study each day? How many of us go to work or school, or begin our day at home with no prayer? In how many homes is there no leading of the family in Bible reading? How many Christians never share their faith or even attempt to teach others? And how many of us are hiding from the world’s tough questions, rather than seeking answers?

There are a few really gifted Christian teachers who perhaps don’t fear to wade into the welter of cynical scholarship today. Not everybody has the confidence, knowledge or will to do that. But there’s absolutely no reason why ordinary folks cannot elicit the help and understanding of such people. For that matter, why not just pick up a good book, or listen to a good podcast, or watch an informative video? There are lots around, thought it is usually wise to check with sensible folks to make sure what you’re finding is the good stuff and is not misleading in some way. (There’s also a fair bit of rubbish around, of course. But the rubbish shouldn’t keep us from the good stuff, right?)

Doubts and Struggles

And what about our own doubts and struggles? We all come across perplexing questions from time to time — on our own, if not in conversation with anyone else — so what prevents us from pressing forward for answers? What keeps us from seeking out more mature, godly and informed Christians to aid us with our doubts? Is there any good reason for us to mash our doubts down, distracting ourselves with other pursuits or setting them aside on the assumption they simply cannot be answered? I wonder how many of us are living with secret doubts we’re not addressing? How tragic would it be if answers were available, but we were too afraid or too indifferent to seek them?

I don’t know the answer to all those questions. I am not taking a sociological survey here, or claiming to tell you what you are experiencing. If what I’m saying doesn’t describe you, don’t worry about it; but if it does ring true for you, why not do something about it? I think we can assess ourselves and see where we personally are in our growth for the Lord, and our capacity to communicate our knowledge to others, whoever they may be. That doesn’t require any exotic statistical measurements.

The Punch

Are you a teacher of the truth of God? If not, why not?

By now, you should be.

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