Wednesday, July 29, 2020

On Knowing and Being Known

“But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

To really know someone and to be known by them is one of the greatest pleasures a human being may experience in this life.

It is also absolutely terrifying.

We know how our own hearts work, at least to some very limited extent. We know the kind of thoughts that enter our heads, and the things we have done from time to time because of them. We all have moments we look back on with shame, and perhaps even things we are doing in the present which we’d prefer never to become public knowledge.

The Insight of Christ

How terrifying, then, to meet someone who “knew what was in man”, who understood every thought, word and deed of which mankind is capable, and who grasped instantly and with absolute precision the exact nature of each poisonous and erroneous set of default assumptions, selfish agenda-pursuing, paranoia, sophistry, manipulation of the data, studiously managed narrative-building or outright delusional thinking that lay behind every single utterance he encountered; who saw right through every facade and every attempt to obscure the truth from the world about who and what we are. That is what it was like to deal with Jesus Christ.

Jesus also knew all kinds of other things, like what kind of tree a man was sitting under without seeing him, or where one might cast a line to find a single fish with a shekel in its mouth, or where schools of fish were swimming in Lake Gennesaret at any given moment. Simon Peter, exposed to the keen insight of the Savior, cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

If he had taken a moment to think about it, he might have realized he was not telling the Lord anything Jesus didn’t already know, and knew very well indeed.

Calling Out the Details

But it’s worse than that, I’m afraid. It is not merely that Jesus knew what mankind was capable of, or that he correctly calculated what people were likely to do in any particular set of circumstances. His level of knowledge of the human soul was and remains deeply personal and unique to each individual, such that he could tell Peter with absolute certainty on another occasion that “This night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He called the timing within a matter of a few scant hours, and he called the number of denials with exacting precision. That is a lot more than just a good judge of character. The Lord Jesus demonstrated not just a keen understanding of probability, but utter certainty about future performance.

Other examples might be given, but readers here are not generally in need of a refresher course on the deity of Christ. Let us simply say that the experience of being known through and through is simultaneously shaming (“Depart from me”) and, once we have come to grips with it, unbelievably reassuring.

You Know Everything

Consider Peter’s last recorded exchange with the Lord, and another cry from a grieved heart, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” There are at least two things in that statement we might remark on: one, that Peter’s confidence in the Lord’s knowledge of him at that point was absolute, to the extent that he had come to rely on it and find security in it; and two, that for one appalling moment he may have entertained the possibility that if the Lord had to keep asking the question “Do you love me?”, perhaps he was telling Peter that he knew something about the condition of his heart that even Peter himself did not know.

For the Christian, to be known by Christ is to be comprehensively understood at a level that no human being can ever understand us, and to be thoroughly loved in spite of all our deepest deficiencies and fleshly backsliding. What a marvel! When we come to God in prayer, we quickly learn from scripture that not only is prevarication or equivocation intolerable, it is not even possible. We stand absolutely naked, transparent before Heaven, with all the brutal reality, shame, confidence and inexpressible joy that entails.

Honesty in Body Life

But here’s the rub. In the moment when we truly come to know Christ, we become part of a body made up of millions of other fallible and failing men and women who are the physical expression of the ascended Christ on this earth. Having learned the utter futility of even attempting to approach God disingenuously, how can we interact with his people on any other basis than that of unremitting and absolute truth? To do so is to deny the reality of the body of Christ, is it not?

This may be why Paul tells the Colossians, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” It is why he tells the Ephesians, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” It is why he tells the Corinthians, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival [Christ’s sacrifice for us, our “Passover”, the initiation of our new state of being] ... with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Or again, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways.” In every case, he is not simply talking about the inappropriateness of Christians lying, but about the peculiar wrongness of Christians allowing any false note at all in the their relationships with one another. When we mislead or misdirect other Christians, we are not just lying to men but to the Holy Spirit himself, who indwells each of them. God demonstrated very early in the history of the Church exactly how he felt about testing and trying the Spirit of the Lord.

From this early incident we learn that a lie does not need to be explicit in order to be manipulative. Even an absence of information can be deliberately deceptive. When Ananias laid only a part the price of his sold property at the apostles’ feet, it is highly unlikely he made a public declaration along the lines of “I just want you to know, Peter, that this is every shekel we got for that property. Every single shekel.” At least no such statement is recorded. Far more likely he had previously lied about the price of the property to a few Christians here and there, or simply let it be assumed that he was donating the entire price of the sale just as others were doing. He was not slain for the high crime of lying to an apostle, but for deliberately misleading the body of Christ and the Holy Spirit who indwells it.

That should really make us stop and think.

The Utility of Confession

This is why I believe we are told in one of the earliest books of the New Testament, “Confess your sins to one another.” This is not a call for some institutional routine requiring a priest or other designated leader of God’s people to dispense pseudo-forgiveness, but rather the insistence upon the same sort of transparency among Christians as we enjoy (and occasionally wince over) in the presence of God: no obfuscation, no deliberate misleading, no shining one another on, no pretending to be better than we are. What you see should be what you get. When it isn’t, or hasn’t been, then it’s time to correct the public record, no matter how embarrassing that may be. If we are to remain in fellowship with the Lord and his Body, no other way of being is possible for us.

Moreover, I do not believe James is calling for the sort of generic humble-bragging we often engage in, usually in order to dismiss the seriousness of sin. You know the sort of nonsense I mean: “Well, you know, we are all sinners” or “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” These are template disclaimers we employ as excuses for our behavior, not personal confessions of wrongdoing or wrong-speaking. Nor, I think, is James calling for rounds of public chest-beating where we deliberately draw attention to ourselves by reeling off a list of recent offenses great and small whenever we gather together, competing for the dubious title of Chief of Sinners. Neither extreme is useful. Sometimes a public confession is called for, but most of the time simply being honest with one another in normal conversation will suffice. What a relief it is when we can speak candidly and unreservedly to one another about our struggles, and see our brothers and sisters nod and say, “I know what you mean. I’ve had that experience.”

Someone has said you don’t have to keep track of lies you haven’t told. You also don’t have to perpetuate deceptions you haven’t engaged in.

What is in Man?

So what is in man? The Lord Jesus knew. He always knows. Many times our brothers and sisters know too. When we attempt to deceive our fellow members of Christ, most of us are nowhere nearly as clever about it as we imagine. Moreover, we are dealing with men and women who are being daily taught by the Holy Spirit, who have the mind of Christ, some at least of whom “have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil”. Many of them have been down the same road, and they know all the same tricks.

And why try to deceive them? When we succeed we only diminish them, and when we fail we diminish ourselves.

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