Sunday, November 21, 2021

Infants, Innocence and Ignorance

“Be infants in evil ...”

“We are not ignorant of [Satan’s] designs.”

In the first instance, Paul appears to be suggesting that Christians in the churches of Corinth were better off the less they knew about evil. Perhaps naivety has its benefits. In the second, the same apostle writes to the very same Christians that “we” — which I take to mean Paul and Timothy, authors of the letter and fellow workers in Christ — are familiar with the manipulations and schemes Satan uses to pit Christian against Christian. That implies a bit of inside knowledge about the way in which evil works, or at very least basic pattern recognition.

Is Paul suggesting there are two different standards of understanding about evil: one for experienced Christian workers and another for the average Joe and Jane in the pews? Or possibly Paul is just being inconsistent ...

Two Points of Comparison

The latter seems improbable, doesn’t it. Even if we didn’t take into account the inspiration of scripture (and how could we discount it?), the interval between the two letters to Corinth we have in our Bibles was as little as two years. It’s unlikely Paul would have forgotten the substance of his first letter when writing his second, or that neither his co-workers nor his amanuensis would have pointed out his apparent inconsistency on the subject of evil — assuming they viewed it as inconsistent.

All right then, how much should Christians know about evil?

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” These are the famous two points of comparison used by the Lord Jesus to describe the mindset his servants needed to adopt when out in the world without their Master physically present with them. They were “sheep in the midst of wolves”, and they needed to “beware”. Naivety would not do. The servant of the Lord must not be credulous or artless. He must keep his wits about him.

I’m an Alighter, Not a Fighter

The dove is a well-known symbol of peace both in and outside of scripture. Doves are alighters, not fighters. The first dove in scripture was sent out from the ark to find rest. The last dove in scripture found it: the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove to mark out the Son of God by resting on him at his baptism.

But ordinary doves are not known for their intelligence. In scripture, the dove is pictured as fearful. It’s always safety first for the dove. And fear leads to questionable judgment. Hosea says, “Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria.” Ephraim was without discernment, and so, like James’s double-minded man, was characterized by instability, not to mention gullibility: Egypt turned out to be an unhelpful ally and Assyria turned out to be a deadly enemy.

Peaceful they may be, but you wouldn’t rely on the word of a dove. Doves hope for solutions to conflict, but never ones that require difficult choices.

Poles and Pieces

The serpent is a symbol of cunning and wisdom. We also (understandably) tend to associate the serpent with great evil, but that is not the way the Lord intends the simile to be read. It is “wise as serpents”, not “evil as serpents”. The serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, but it is not the cunning that was the problem; it was the destructive use to which it was put.

Intelligence is a fine thing when used in the service of God. We must love the Lord our God with all our minds, not just all our hearts. But intelligence is not so fine a thing when used against God. The wisdom of this word is foolishness with God. He catches the wise in their craftiness. Set on a pole and held up before a dying congregation in the wilderness, the bronze serpent was a symbol of life. But when the people of Israel made offerings to it, it became necessary to break the bronze serpent in pieces.

Yet, fully recognizing the inherent danger in a tool like wisdom, the Lord still counsels his disciples, “Be wise.”

The dove and the serpent need to come together in the believer’s mindset. The Lord wants the innocence of the dove without the dove’s native silliness. He wants the ability to recognize evil, but not the taste for it.

Naivety and Innocence

So what is the difference between naivety and innocence?

Naivety is an absence of understanding. It is a void, not a positive quality. The law of the Lord is for “making wise the simple”. It is not good that they be left in their simplicity. Solomon wrote his proverbs “to give prudence to the simple”. The alternative was dangerous. “The naive man,” he wrote, “believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” Naivety is a gaping hole waiting to be filled. Left unfilled, a hole becomes a trap or a cause of stumbling. Naivety gets swept away by wisdom and replaced by prudence because it is a vacuum, a nullity.

Innocence is not like that. Innocence is a positive quality. Its Greek equivalent literally means pure; unmixed or uncontaminated. The innocent are “without blemish”. But where naivety disappears when wisdom arrives, innocence happily cohabits with the informed mind. This is because innocence is not an absence, but rather a way of processing evil correctly. “To the pure, all things are pure.” For innocence, wisdom is not a contaminant but a complement: “I want you to be wise as to what is good AND innocent as to what is evil.”

Innocence handles evil the right way, by overwhelming it with good, where naivety cannot deal with it at all. Innocence is pure not because it has never encountered evil, but because the word of Christ enables it to absorb necessary information while repelling the evil aspects of it. Evil can find no foothold in innocence. Innocence needs only the daily “footwashing” of the Word to remain in its pure state.

Grappling with Ideas

So then, there are things about evil the believer needs to know, and things we do not. How does that work exactly?

Grappling with ideas, new and old, right and wrong, is a Christian necessity. Refusing to engage with sophists and their sophistry is impossible. If you do not meet them dialectically, with the sword of the word of God in hand to dissect their ideas and hold them up to the light, you will meet them rhetorically and be deceived by them. We do not need all the gory and sometimes enticing details of evil — we are to be infants in that respect — but we certainly need to discern that we are being manipulated, and recognize how the tactics employed against us align with the way Satan has sought to deceive other generations. We cannot remain ignorant and function effectively as servants of Christ in the world. In our desire for rest, we dare not alight anywhere and everywhere.

We are sheep in the midst of wolves, surrounded by liars and lies, in the church and outside of it. That has always been the case, and our Lord warned us about it. Stuffing our fingers in our ears and trying to remain uncontaminated by refusing to acknowledge the villainy of villains doesn’t help us.

That is naivety, not innocence.

No comments :

Post a Comment